California Community Hopes for Increase in Gas Prices

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If you drive a car, you could say you got a raise this winter. Cheap gas keeping money in your pocket that would have otherwise gone into your tank.

That money goes toward things you really want, fueling the economy.

But there's one place in California where many people actually wish prices would rev back up again.

Kern County is home to about 80 percent of the state's active oil wells. Just minutes from downtown Bakersfield, you can find tens of thousands of oil pumps, colloquially known as "nodding donkeys," drawing oil out of the ground.

That oil is the lifeblood of Kern County's economy.

"Oil touches a lot of lives here in Bakersfield," Melissa Rossiter said. "It puts food on a lot of family's tables."

Rossiter, of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, says living in Kern County means you either work in oil yourself or know someone that does.

With oil prices down, drilling companies' profits are shrinking and layoffs have begun.

According to the most recent state Employment Development numbers, about 1,500 oil jobs were lost in the Bakersfield area in 2014.  People who work in the industry tell FOX40, several hundred more pink slips have been handed out so far this year in that area.

During our visit to Bakersfield, it was all too easy to find people impacted by this reality.

"I like to see the lower prices," Brady Ritter said, filling a truck with mixed emotions. "But my sons-in-law are getting laid off."

"You know what?  I had one employee that was working for me and I was giving him 40-45 hours a week.  I had to lay him off," oil producer Brett Cooper said.

Larry Swarens owns a small geological consulting firm. He surveys potential dig sites for the presence of oil. As prices plunged, his phone stopped ringing.

"And God knows where I'll be next week.  Maybe Colorado or Nevada," he said.

On the 12th and highest floor of Bakersfield’s tallest building, you find the petroleum club where oil executives gather.  Here we met Terra Gaines who runs a job placement firm for oil workers.

"We're definitely in a petroleum recession at this point," Gaines told FOX40.

And it's just a matter of time before the belt-tightening inevitably trickles down, oil executives say.

"House-keepers to human resource managers, to entry level staff. Especially when you're sustained primarily by one industry, it really affects just about everything else around,"  Gaines said.

There's a ripple effect of cheap oil in Kern County. The drilling companies pay millions in property taxes to the county, which goes toward public safety and schools. When the price of oil drops the value of all this land goes down, and fewer oil tax dollars go to the county.

In the upcoming fiscal year, that's an estimated $61 million Kern County was counting on, wiped away by plunging oil prices.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors recently declared a state of fiscal emergency, allowing the county to tap into some reserve money - but not enough to make up for the expected shortfall.

"Because of that, and because we know that it's not going to turn around immediately, we need to take action. And to take action, we're going to take a one percent immediate cut by all the general fund county departments.  And in the next couple years, we'll be taking four percent cuts," County Administrative Officer John Nilon said.

Nilon adds that police officers and firefighters could be laid off.

But as dire as things sound, people in Kern County seem to share a common trait - optimism.

"We'll come out of it," Rossiter said.

The hopefulness comes from experience, surviving ups and downs many times over.

"There is the optimism," Gaines said. "And even though it's bleak at this point, the industry always does come back."

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