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Kern supervisors approve nearly $800 million budget despite pension 'cancer'

Pensions costs have been steadily rising in Kern County for 15 years, this year accounting for about 17 percent of the general fund. (KBAK/KBFX graphic)

The Kern County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a nearly $800 million budget that included 3.5 percent cuts to all departments.

Prior to the unanimous vote, supervisors listened to staff reports about two of the county's most vexing problems - low oil prices and high pension costs.

"Pension costs are like a cancer that keeps growing and it's eating away at our other funding sources just like a cancer would eat at healthy tissue," said Supervisor Zack Scrivner, who represents the southeast portion of the county.

County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, who started in his position in January, acknowledged staff salary increases have lagged behind inflation for several years, but highlighted the ever-increasing cost of subsidizing staff health care and retirement.

Pension costs have risen by more than $100 million per year since 2001, according to data obtained by Eyewitness News. Roughly one in six dollars of the general fund, which is used for public safety, public works and parks, is tied up in pension obligations.

"I think there was no planning, frankly," Alsop said. "I think we're all inheriting something that people didn't adequately plan for. There were some poor decisions made back in the day regarding pensions."

The high pensions costs would be more manageable in a scenario where oil was worth more. Low crude prices have placed a lower ceiling on the revenue the county is accustomed to drawing from oilfield property. Staff advised to supervisors Tuesday to plan on no changes in oil prices for years to come.

Changes were made to employee benefit packages several years ago. Incoming staff are promised a lot less than current employees were when they started, but the county's accountants say it will be years before those changes provide any real budgetary relief.

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