BY: Juan Zuniga
Promising to work toward building healthier, safer communities, Kern County has allocated $2 million for the development and enhancement of parks across Kern County, County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop announced during a Building Healthy Communities special meeting.
Rexland Acres, Lamont and Greenfield communities will receive soft-surface playgrounds, resurfaced basketball courts, shade structures and a concentrated effort to remove graffiti in their parks, Alsop said.
“Our parks are not good — not good anywhere, and I believe we have a responsibility as a government to have nice parks and recreation. People in Rexland Acres, Lamont and Greenfield deserve to have nice things,” Alsop said.
The announcement comes less than one year after the county, struggling with a diminished tax base after a downturn in the oil market, passed a tight budget that eliminated $10 million in spending over the prior year.
In a follow up conversation, Megan Person, the Director of Countywide Communications, reports that the funds to pay for the park improvements come from diversified sources including $250,000 from Supervisor Leticia Perez’s budget which she has chosen to spend in revitalizing the parks in her district.
Creating safer, cleaner parks and more recreational space for youth has been a key priority of Building Healthy Communities South Kern, a nonprofit advocacy group that has spent years calling on county officials to allocate more funding toward such endeavors. It has also long been on the radars of other community leaders — but such an announcement wasn’t expected February 8th, 2018.
“This announcement came to us as a surprise because community organizations and residents of these communities have been advocating for these changes in all of these parks,” said Gustavo Aguirre, organizing director for The Center on Race Poverty and the Environment. “There is much more to do, but this gives us hope. This tells us that the county is willing to listen to the residents’ priorities to improve our communities.”
Another community member in attendance, Jose Pinto, said he was excited to see the investment made in free recreational spaces for youth and families.
“We need to keep the youth busy because when we keep youth busy we keep them out of trouble,” said Pinto. “One thing that we must continue to works towards is to change the narrative of what is community safety. A safe community is a community that has access to safe and maintained parks, walking paths, and youth programs.”
Throughout the general plan meeting, Alsop emphasized the importance of youth programs and his desire to see libraries open longer and expanding services. Those libraries took a blow in 2016 during a round of budget cuts. A sales tax measure proposed on the ballot the same year that would have brought in about $15 million annually to buoy libraries failed.
Alsop said he was moved after attending a summer reading and free lunch program at Beale Library. He now wants libraries to bolster similar community engagement offerings.
“Seeing all those kids brought tears to my eyes. It’s the best that we do,” Alsop said, adding that the kids taking part are all needy, but those programs provide them a safe haven. “The parents are relieved and don’t have to pay a dime. It’s something the county does well and we need to do more of it.”
Alsop laid out three goals over the next three years to get Kern moving toward becoming a healthier community, saying he wants to enhance the quality of life for residents, become a model of excellence in managing business and people, and foster a culture of innovation.
Alsop identified six priorities to help the county reach those goals
- The Advance Kern Initiative, which would take aim at developing the local economy by enticing new businesses to invest in the region. The initiative would create a more business-friendly climate, “wiping out” caps on incentives for businesses to set up shop in Kern County, lower property taxes, and increase tax deductions for businesses, Alsop said.
- Constructing more sheriff’s academies to alleviate understaffing in eastern Kern County and bolster public safety.
- Investing more money into parks and recreation for youth.
- Improving drainage systems to ensure flood protection countywide, something the county has begun addressing.
- Creating more pedestrian pathways and addressing transportation issues across the county.
- Improving our libraries and making them more community oriented.
Alsop was blunt when it came to identifying challenges facing Kern County.
“I drive around this county, and it’s daunting. It’s not good enough,” Alsop said. “We have not, as a community, done a very good job of doing our business — and the business I’m in is building healthy, safe, forward-thinking, sustainable communities.”