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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

Measure K faces uphill battle in conservative Kern County

Pumpjacks stretch into the distance outside Oildale, California.
Joshua Yeager
Pumpjacks stretch into the distance outside Oildale. Kern County leaders say declining crude oil prices are behind a push to pass Measure K, a one-cent sales tax that would affect unincorporated residents.

Kern County's coffers have been walloped by a decline in its tentpole industries: Agriculture, oil and gas.

Amid spiking crime and declining oil revenues, Kern County leaders are urging voters to pass a penny sales tax. Without it, the sheriff says hundreds of vacancies are likely to remain unfilled.

But the measure’s fate is far from certain as voters in the conservative county juggle their support for public safety with their general distrust of taxes.

Retired oil field worker Jesse Leal has noticed rising crime in Kern County. He blames a decline in the region’s once-towering oil and gas industry, which has led to a lack of jobs.

“Oil and gas was the backbone of Kern County,” he said. “That’s gone.”

It’s why he supports Measure K, a proposed one-cent sales tax that would affect unincorporated residents. County leaders say the tax will boost essential services.

“We need more law enforcement coming out and keeping the lawlessness in check,” he said.

At a recent informational meeting, Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop told Leal and others that the county’s coffers have been walloped by a decline in Kern’s tentpole industries: Agriculture, oil and gas.

Discretionary revenues are down $500 million over 10 years, Alsop says, blaming in part California’s pledge to go carbon-free by 2045.

“Oil and gas extraction in the state of California is being driven into extinction,” he said.

That’s why the Board of Supervisors put the sales tax on the ballot. They hope to bring in up to $60 million annually.

Sheriff supports Measure K proposal

“I’m not a tax guy; I’m an anti-tax guy, but I don’t know what plan b is,” Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.

He supports Measure K and hopes the funds will help him fill holes in his struggling department.

“Right now, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office is down 400 positions; 145 of those are deputy sheriffs,” he said.

Those vacancies have resulted in the closure of two jails, making it harder to keep violent criminals off the streets, he said.

Youngblood and others blasted Governor Newsom for his perceived hypocrisy when he highlighted Kern’s public safety challenges late last year.

“It’s interesting, the murder capital, tragically, of California is Kern County. It’s not a red or blue issue,” the state’s top Democrat said during a December press conference.

The Kern County murder rate is 12.7 per 100,000 residents, or about one homicide per 8,000 people – more than double the state average. But the sheriff alleges that Newsom’s own policies are to blame for the county’s spike in crime.

Will Kern County voters approve new tax?

Despite the dire picture painted by some officials, Measure K is likely to face an uphill battle in conservative Kern County.

That’s according to Richard Gearhart, an economics professor at CSU Bakersfield. He says the measure will have to overcome the region’s long-standing aversion to taxes.

“A lot of residents feel like they’ve been slapped around by the state for quite some time, so why would they vote for any tax increases?” he said.

He pointed to Measure N, a similar tax in the city of Bakersfield, that passed by fewer than a hundred votes in 2018.

“In a city of several hundred thousand, that is an infinitesimally small vote difference,” he said.

Teresa Hammett of East Bakersfield says she supports the tax but has concerns about how the money will be spent. An oversight committee would guide spending and provide transparency, but she’s skeptical.

“I don’t want it to just be a bunch of business people,” she said. “It needs to be people from the community that are, you know, residents.”

The tax requires a simple majority to pass. It’s now up to Kern’s vast unincorporated population – some 300,000 residents spanning an area roughly the size of New Jersey – to decide whether the county’s argument is convincing.

“This is about the future of our county unincorporated area residents,” said Alsop, the county administrator. “It’s a future of continuing to live within our means, or a future of investment in public safety and other vital services.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.