Local News

Tuesday, Jul 07 2009 01:12 PM

County saves jail, CPS staffing with unexpected millions

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Stunned Kern County leaders learned Tuesday that their battered general fund was actually flush with $52.5 million in cash as the fiscal year ended last week.

That number, dramatically better than the $16.3 million balance estimated by county budget gurus in recent months, allowed supervisors Tuesday to keep a threatened section of Lerdo jail open, avoid a prisoner release, reduce detention deputy layoffs and fund child protective services staffing.

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Library hours across Kern County were cut dramatically Tuesday, effective Aug. 1. Here are the details for Bakersfield-area ones:

Baker Street — will be open one day a week, Tuesday, down from three.

Beale Memorial Library — will be open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, down from six.

East Brundage Lane — will be open one day a week, Thursday, down from two.

Columbus Street — will be open three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, down from five.

West China Grade Loop — will be open three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, down from five.

Ming Avenue — will be open four days a week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, down from six.

Wilson Road — will be open three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, down from five.

While applauding the good news, supervisors also demanded to know how the county could, in one day, find an additional $36.2 million in the fund used to provide its most basic services.

The dramatic turnaround “is a matter of real concern to me,” said Supervisor Ray Watson. “We need to find some better way to track where we are as compared to budget. This indicates to me we didn’t know where we were by $36 million. Thank god it was a positive change.”

Supervisors voted immediately to spend $7.5 million of the windfall to resolve two of the toughest budget debates they’ve had as they prepare to adopt a new spending plan in two weeks.

They put $4 million into Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s budget to avoid the planned closure of the minimum security building at Lerdo Jail.

And they gave the Department of Human Services $3.5 million to maintain staffing in the child protective services division, pay for welfare fraud investigators and fund child-centered programs through non-profit Garden Pathways.

They set aside the rest of the money in the county’s fiscal stability reserve to handle possible crises resulting from the state budget battle.

Supervisor Mike Maggard said the county cannot relax its painful belt-tightening or roll back 75 layoffs approved in a number of departments over past weeks.

“It’s great news,” he said. “But we’re still in the midst of a financial firestorm. As hard as it is, the way to weather the storm is to stay on the course we’re on.”

Indeed, the board directed staff Tuesday to drastically cut the Kern County library system, laying off 27 full- and part-time workers and reducing library hours. Five libraries, including libraries on Baker Street and Brundage Lane in Bakersfield, would be open only a single day a week.

Supervisors also rejected a request from Kern County Detention Officers Association President Kevin Dees, supported by Youngblood, to spend an additional $3.7 million to keep 45 detention deputies employees. Those planned layoffs will now happen.

Kern County Auditor-Controller Ann Barnett clarified some of the reasons for Tuesday’s dramatic good news.

Most of the new money, Barnett said, comes from county departments saving more cash than they were expected to as they struggled to deal with bad financial times.

The county had expected that departments would spend 95 percent of their general fund money for the fiscal year, she said. On the whole, departments spent only 92 percent, Barnett said.

That alone was worth an extra $49.5 million on the county’s bottom line.

Michael Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers’ Association said county departments have kept many funded positions open during the budget year and built up savings.

“It was the frugalness of the departments,” he said. “They’re to be congratulated if that’s where (the savings) came from.”

The county also brought in $11 million more than expected on an obscure property tax fund it administers.

Barnett said the county has a deal with schools and other government agencies in Kern.

The county gives those districts 100 percent of their share of property taxes and assumes the liability for collecting on delinquent property taxes.

If the county collects on these “Teeter Fund” accounts, it gets to keep the penalties and interest assessed on those debts.

In most years, Barnett said, the county pulls in around $5 million extra on those penalties and interests.

But, with the housing market tanking and foreclosures everywhere, the county expected it might actually lose money on the delinquencies this year.

Barnett said that didn’t happen. Banks took over the property and paid the tax bills, she said.

Some of the good news was offset by worse-than-expected revenue numbers — a $15.5 million drop from estimates was locked in on June 30, according to auditor spreadsheets.

But the positive news, at least for Tuesday, outweighed those negatives.

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