Friday, January 30, 2009

Thanks for the connection

As mentioned in this week's column, the city of Tracy deserves a round of applause for its participation in the countywide homeless connection event. Especially the code enforcement division and police department.

It might sound a little backwards to thank public officials for participating in what is, after all, a count that's required by Congress. But people like former interim police chief and still Capt. Rick Golphin and code enforcement head Ana Contreras — and those in their departments — worked hard to make Thursday's event happen.

(We'd be remiss if we didn't also didn't give a special mention to Apostolic New Life Center church for providing the hot meals, and Sutter Tracy Healthy Connections for sponsoring similar "Good Samaritan" gatherings for the homeless four times a year to provide outreach.)

Police officers and code enforcement workers handed out fliers to folks on the street, informed known homeless individuals of the event, and basically just acknowledged that they can have a positive role in addressing what is ultimately an issue for the entire community.

They — along with tireless nonprofits and volunteers — created a truly welcoming event.

"Tracy's a warm and welcoming community," Contreras said.

On Thursday, we proved it. The challenge is to prove it again, and again, and again.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Water, water nowhere

There's enough snow to ski on, but not enough for crops, people and wildlife.

The Sierra's snowpack water content is about 61 percent of normal, according to the most recent survey performed by the state earlier today. And state weather experts say the prospects aren't bright for a late-season game of catch-up.

"There's not a lot of indications the rest of the year will be normal, and even if it were, we'd still wind up below average for the northern Sierra," said Elissa Lynn, California's senior meteorologist, to reporters today.

This could all change with one massive stormfront — and then Second Thoughts would wail about the floods and why didn't we fix the levees sooner.

But right now, it looks like water rationing is a very realistic possibility this summer.

Who knows? Maybe Tracy will get a budget and political break and be forced to close Joe Wilson Pool anyway.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nothing broken at Delta College... yet

Today Second Thoughts received a response from Delta College Board of Trustees President Steve Castellanos regarding a recent blog entry of mine that described the decision to put permanent work on hold at the college's Mountain House campus.

Specifically, Castellanos took exception to my calling the decision a "broken promise."

The campus there is not being abandoned, according to Castellanos. Far from it. It's just that the state's fiscal crisis is forcing a re-prioritization of spending. And right now — though classes in portable classrooms will start at Mountain House this fall as scheduled — that means waiting on the permanent phase of the south-county project.

Also, he wished to correct a passage in which I stated "that Measure L bond money will be directed away from the south-county campus, to be used for other projects."

"There has been no board discussion or decision on redirecting any money other than to hold funds in reserve for projects in construction or (that are) ready to go into construction where state bond money was a component of the cash requirement. An example is the campus library in Stockton, currently under construction. ... So far, we have not had to close down any project, as other school districts have had to do."

Those Stockton projects were originally bankrolled with Measure L bond money, just like the Mountain House campus. But those closer-to-completion projects were supposed to be backed with state matching funds that are frozen right now, according to Delta public information officer Greg Greenwood. So the project at Mountain House will be put on hold so that the Measure L money is available to complete the Stockton projects if (it's a big "if") the state doesn't follow through with its share.

Plus, the projects at the Stockton campus have always been the priority. Which makes sense, as that campus serves the majority of Delta's student body.

The upshot, though, is mostly the same — Permanent construction at Mountain House is on pause.

To be fair, completing a permanent campus at Mountain House was going to be years down the road, anyway. And frankly, while that project is vitally important to Mountain House, permanent construction there is not as important to the overall county community as upgrades to the main, already-established campus.

Castellanos said he and the other trustees won't forget about the committment to Mountain House and insist on finding solutions for the project:

"We (the trustees) asked the administration to continue to explore more options to achieve goals in Mountain House, which they are doing. We established a joint committee between the board and the Mountain House Community Services District as well to make sure that communication is clear and joint goals could be met."

Still, there's no denying that many in Mountian House probably perceive the situation as one in which they get the short end of the stick. And it's easy to empathize. No one wants to see the centerpiece of their community put on hold. It's a fair point.

But, as Castellanos says, considering that Delta has already spent several years and $22.6 million on the campus:

"To be told by the public that the continuous investment Delta has made is not sufficient is troublesome when one can clearly see that the developer himself, as well as the marketplace for new homes, etc., have all experienced serious setbacks."

In other words: Delta has invested millions of dollars and lots of time to bring higher education to Mountain House — whaddya mean we're not concerned about south county students?

Also a fair point.

These are indeed, as Catellanos says, "very difficult and unprecedented times." And in such times, everyone gets the short end of the stick. Cutbacks will be made — at school districts, cities, everywhere.

The people who make the tough decisions — the ones who seem to put the larger community priorities first, at least — should be given some understanding. (It's the ones making no decisions at all we should be pissed at.)

It's also worth noting that while a fully landscaped campus would be a community boon, so is the education that will be offered beginning this fall at the south-county campus. "Portables" doesn't have to equal "crappy education," and Greenwood insists that the quality of instruction in Mountain House will equal that at the main Stockton campus.

That, ultimately, is what's most important — expanding the educational resources available in the south county.

There's still plenty of time for Delta to keep its promise to Mountain House. So even if we're upset in the south county, maybe a little patience is in order.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Just put down the pen and walk away...

When legislators don't do the work, voters tend to get fed up, step in and do the decision-making for them. Problem is, we're not that good at setting cohesive policy.

Hence California's patchwork of spending formulas, mandated earmarks and the ludicrous two-thirds majority required to pass a tax increase — one of the main culprits behind Sacramento's budget gridlock and radicalization of state Senate and Assembly representatives.

That won't stop us from trying again.

Right now, the California Teachers' Association is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would raise the state sales tax one cent to be spent strictly on education. While I'm all for sparing school districts from the machete, another ballot initiative formula is not the way to fund education.

This is part of how we got into this mess in the first place.

But don't expect voters to learn when the Legislature hasn't, either. One of the suggestions our lawmakers are seriously considering is sending budget-balancing plans to the voters.

If that happens, maybe the voters should consider a different type of ballot measure — a recall. Of everyone.

Because if doing their job is just too much work, we should do lawmakers the favor of removing the burden.

Rally for the veterans

Grab your markers and cardboard — our Congressman wants you to protest.

Specifically, Rep. Jerry McNerney wants you and everyone you can gather to show up at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 30 at San Joaquin General Hospital. The goal: improve medical care for military veterans by convincing the Department of Veterans Affairs to locate its newest facility in French Camp.

McNerney wrote in an open letter to his constituents:

In just a couple of weeks, the Department of Veterans Affairs will make an announcement about where they will build a new veterans’ nursing home and expanded medical facility in the Central Valley.

These new veterans’ facilities are sorely needed and they should be built at French Camp, adjacent to San Joaquin General Hospital.

French Camp is already home to a heavily-used VA outpatient clinic and it’s an ideal site for an expanded treatment center and nursing home. The site clearly meets or exceeds the selection criteria established by the VA, which include local veteran demographics, site accessibility, and proximity to a hospital. Additionally, the French Camp site has support not only from elected officials and veterans in San Joaquin County, but in Amador and Calaveras Counties, as well.

Stanislaus County is putting up stiff competition to bring the facility there. But, for the reasons McNerney highlighted, it makes eminently more sense to place the clinic in French Camp.

So get those signs ready. Our veterans need the help.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Community pride through charity

In my college days, prospective students often asked me what I thought of my alma mater -- Loyola Marymount University. I told them the same thing I tell people about Tracy:

Get to know people, get involved, become a part of something, and you'll love it. If you just want a place to park your rear, you might want to find someplace else.

People don’t brag about their hometowns because of a flashy swim center or a bunch of baseball fields -- community pride comes from being a community.

That means you do more than just choose to live somewhere. It means being involved.

In the spirit of getting involved and meeting President Obama's inaugural challenge to be responsible for our communities, Second Thoughts has compiled a list and contact info for charities that get help from the local United Way (full disclosure, I'm a new member of the UW's Tracy Community Council).

Get in touch with these or other charities to help, and become a part of, your community:

American Cancer Society: 941-2676

Big Brothers & Big Sisters: 916-646-9300

Tracy Boys & Girls Clubs: 832-2582

Community Center for the Blind: 466-3836,

Give Every Child a Chance: 830-7275

Hospice of San Joaqiun: 957-3888,

McHenry House Family Shelter: 835-2328

Pregnancy Resource Center: 836-4415

Second Harvest Food Bank: 833-3663

Tracy Art League: 836-5842,

Tracy Interfaith Ministries: 836-5424,

Women's Center of San Joaquin: 941-2611, hotline 465-4878

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Discretion — the better part of education?

With the state budget mess keeping many schools from making long-term plans, it's really no surprise that the San Joaquin Delta College trustees chose to put off permanent work at the Mountain House south-county campus. When actual instruction starts at the MH site, it'll be in portable buildings.

There are several factors at play here, most notably:

1. Money is short
This one's obvious. State funding is up in the air, trustees can't figure exactly how much they'll have to cut from budgets and the Measure L bond money is running out because of past delays and poor decisions.

2. Need is changing
A south-county campus would be a boon for Mountain House and, to a lesser extent, Tracy and the rest of the south county. However, more and more students are choosing to take their classes online, and the need for a community college campus in Mountain House will not be truly great until that community builds out — something that's been delayed by the housing crunch. While a MH campus would still be more useful for Tracy students than the Stockton campus, trustees can somewhat justify putting work at MH on hold for now.

3. Minds aren't made up
Even though financial facts seem to indicate Delta College is committed to Mountain House for the site of the south-county campus, statements in the 2008 campaign indicate that even some trustees are not 100 percent convinced that Mountain House is the best place for the school.

So the move is understandable. But it also sucks.

People in Mountain House were promised a permanent campus. The town was designed with the college in mind as an anchor and selling point. The folks who decided to call it home and actually try to build a community in what's now a less-than-glorified suburb deserve to have that promise fulfilled.

Even though school President Raul Rodriguez insisted that "We’re not recommending abandoning Mountain House," it's easy to understand if Mountain House folks feel nervous about the recent news.

What's even more disconcerting is to hear that Measure L bond money will be directed away from the south-county campus, to be used for other projects. As stated before, there are real reasons for this, but voters passed this $250 million behemoth because they were promised certain things, chief among them a satellite campus to serve Tracy and Mountain House.

It certainly seems, at best, that the MH project is being put on the back burner. Maybe that's the reality of our situation, but it's also another broken promise.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

A present for the whole country

When I began writing my column yesterday, I couldn’t help but smile. Because Barack Obama’s name didn’t trigger a spell check in my word processer.

For some reason, Nov. 4, 2008, didn’t hit home until then. Now – at least according to Microsoft Word – Obama’s election is real.

And Second Thoughts is counting the minutes down like a kid before Christmas.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

State of the State

Read the full text of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech here.

But if you're pressed for time, this section is a pretty good summation:

For months, in the face of a crisis, we have been unable to reach agreement on the largest budget deficit in our history.

We are in our third special session and we've declared a fiscal emergency — and every day that goes by, makes the budget problem that much harder to solve.

As a result of all this, California, the eighth largest economy in the world, faces insolvency within weeks.

Or possibly this one:

Conan's sword could not have cleaved our political system in two as cleanly as our own political parties have done.

Over time, ours has become a system where rigid ideology has been rewarded and pragmatic compromise has been punished.

But the money quote, the real message of the governor's speech and the one that should be repeated ad infinitum:

No one wants to take money from our gang-fighting programs or from Medi-Cal or from education.

No one wants to pay more in taxes or fees.

But each of us has to give up something because our country is in an economic crisis and our state simply doesn't have the money.

Thanks, Arnold, for putting that into perspective.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hold on to your barf bags...

... Or get set to recalibrate your Unintentional Comedy Scale.

Because Gov. Arnold's Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech is tomorrow, and it promises to be one prolonged vomitfest or laughing stock — depending on how a litany of incompetence affects you.

Mired in what's arguably the worst fiscal crisis in the state's history, it's truly a wonder as to what the governator will script for the occassion. (If he starts with a traditional "The state of our state is strong," my brain might explode.)

Truly, the Apocolypse is not upon us. But things in the Capitol are pretty bad, and the pending budget cuts will seriously hamstring our society, as evidenced by Tuesday's report of the Tracy Unified School District's board meeting. (Read Jennifer Wadsworth's report here or my most recent column about the matter here.)

Schwarzenegger will have to call out all his acting skills to reinforce a sense that California is not crumbling. Even as most of the evidence suggests otherwise.

Not exactly proud of the alma mater

Most times I'm all right being a grad of St. Mary's High School, the esteemed private institution in Stockton. Not so much tonight.

The West High girls basketball team was outmatched by the Rams from the outset. The Wolf Pack were down 34-6 after one quarter, with the visitors employing a brutally efficeint full-court press.

So, call of the dogs (er, Rams), right?

Wrong. St. Mary's continued to press and launch 3-pointers until the score was 75-6 at halftime.

Eventually the press was called off, and I guess it showed in the final 105-17 tally.

Wanting to win, even wanting to dominate an opponent, is normal and fine in athletic competition. Continuing to embarass an obviously overmatched opponent — that's just a lack of class.

So much for sportsmanship.

Then again, St. Mary's wasn't the only team to run up a score Tuesday night. Tracy's girls took Franklin behind the woodshed, beating the Yellowjackets 60-9.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bio-lab lands far from Tracy

Remember a couple years ago when the Department of Homeland Security considered Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Site 300 as a possible location for a lab studying deadly diseases?

The lab the Tracy City Council voted not to support has found a home, in Manhattan, Kansas.

The facility will research "livestock diseases and some of the world's most dangerous biological threats," according to The Associated Press report.

And my, are some Kansans happy.

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts gushed to AP: "With this new lab, Kansas will cement its reputation as the nation's leader in plant and animal health research and the biosciences. We will reap the benefits of a cutting-edge industry while protecting the nation's food supply and agricultural economy for years to come."

And my, are some other finalists for the lab's location not.

Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the selection process unfair because his state's legislators weren't in session in 2008 and unable to consider a financial package to augment the state's bid.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said last month when the initial recommendation was made that the process was flawed and that his state should have been awarded the project.

Tracy, of course, is happy too. The sentiments from big dawgs in Texas and Mississippi are in stark contrast to those of the Tracy City Council, which voted in 2007 to oppose the Tracy location when the Livermore lab was still in the running.

At the time, I thought it made much more sense to research germs at Site 300 (especially those that could help fight agricultural pestilence in an agricultural region) than another lab plan to increase outdoor bomb testing that involved sending depleted uranium and tritium into Tracy's airspace (a plan I extensively criticized).

Turns out there were plenty of people willing to accept the risk associated with the lab and roll out the welcome mat. The leadership in Kansas certainly seems upbeat, and, as I noted in October 2007, folks in Tracy got what they wanted.

The start of the goodbye

Because everyone needs a laugh on a Monday morning.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Another state budget casualty

Local schools aren't the only ones being hurt by the state's budget bickering.

Since the state decided to plunder the redevelopment agency fund — in apparent violation of the California Constitution, and a lawsuit is pending — countless projects across the state have been put on hold.

Tracy's redevelopment agency, according to city finance director Zane Johnston, cannot take out new bonds to help fund improvement projects in the Bow Tie area, like the Sixth Street Plaza, until the budget mess is sorted out.

“We don’t know how much money we can really count on having," he told me Thursday.

Other local redevelopment agencies that have already taken out bond funding are dealing with a revenue loss.

But at least the city is mostly insulated from the state's budget crisis, Johnston said.

“For the most part, I think we’re probably 95 percent shored up on the city’s general fund from the state impacting us.”

Of course, there could be exceptions.

One is that the state declares a fiscal emergency and decides to borrow property taxes from local governments with the promise to pay back the pilfered money within three years. The other is that local payments routed through the state, such as sales tax revenue, could be given to local governments in the form of IOUs if a budget isn't in place by February. (And remember, IOUs aren't really good for paying workers or buying supplies.)

Let's hope neither of those exceptions come to pass.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Something to smile about

Your dose of positive economic news for the day: Work is beginning on Red Maple Village on Valpico Road and Tracy Boulevard.

The center, which City Council members have called one of the city's more environmentally friendly developments, will be home to a Raleys supermarket and several other businesses.

No word when it'll be complete. But a start is better than nothing.

Protect it... by blowing it up

Wandering around a golf course north of Tracy today, I couldn't help but notice a series of concussions that sounded like small cannon fire.

Turns out, it's just a routine effort to save area levees.

To keep critters from turning the earthen berms into Swiss cheese, charges are set off that seem to keep the problem under control.

Protect the levees by blowing stuff up. Sounds about right.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Legislating lagging education

A helpful hint to the Legislature in Sacramento: You're killing our communities.

Think I'm exaggerating? Hardly.

Take, for instance, the case of Delta College. Despite its well-documented travails in the past year, it's this region's affordable avenue of higher education, with an enrollment pushing 25,000.

Higher education — and schooling in general — is one of the most important components in changing the Central Valley from a place of frequent double-digit employment to a self-sustaining economic engine. But without direction from the state, Delta and other bastions of knowledge are left without a game plan. Heck, they don't even know which field to play on.

Teresa Brown, the Tracy-area trustee for Delta College, told me today there is absolutely "No sense of direction from Sacramento."

Trustees are mulling staff-generated possibilities for expected budget cuts — a prudent move considering the state could end up being billions in the red — but exactly how tight the belt must get won't be known until the Legislature gets its act together.

Until it does — and given the level of competence in Sacramento, that could be awhile — Delta and other community colleges won't know what or how much to slash. Likewise, the Tracy Unified School District won't know if it will have to close rural Delta Island School. And, of course, parents and students will be in the lurch.

In short, no future plans can be made until local educators and administrators know the size of the state's bill of damage.

In the meantime, the valley and places like it fall farther behind in the drive toward a brighter, more educated, future.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Peripheral canal update

If you're secure in thinking that a peripheral canal will be defeated again because it went down in flames in the 1980s — you might want to rethink that.

The chairman of a committee tasked with finding a solution for the state's water problems says that a peripheral canal can be built without the consent of voters or lawmakers.

"We already have that authority," says Mike Chrisman.

The news comes much to the delight of those in Parts Previously Unwatered, who are ramping up the campaign for a canal without actually bothering to explain its perceived benefits.

So excuse me if those of us living in the Delta whip ourselves into "hysteria" and don't take at face value the blanket statement, "any comprehensive plan will have to include a way to bring water around the Delta." But it's easy for water-thirsty regions to advocate the continued plunder of someplace far, far away.

Finding a solution to California's water problems doesn't need to devolve into regionalism. I've said time and time again, all Californians have a stake in what happens to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The whole state is in this together, and that means folks in both Northern and Southern California need to think about concessions.

Of course, when you can bypass the bargaining table and just grab what you want, why bother?

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's all in the family

If you looked closely at today's Tracy Press, you noticed that there was more than one Mendelson in its pages.

That's because my father, Bill, was quoted extensively in a story about Tracy participating (finally) in the countywide homeless count. He's the executive director of CVLIHC, which runs several programs that help homeless folks find housing.

I've written about the need for Tracy to join in the count in the past, and the connection is no mistake. Bill has been involved in running homeless shelters and homeless help programs since I was in grade school. I've been around this kind of work most of my life, and I admire the hell outta my dad and the other people who do it.

You could say I come by my own advocacy honestly.

For full clarification, Bill's never once asked me to write about his operation, the homeless counts
or any other topic. The reason homelessness so frequently flows from my pen — er, keyboard — is because I truly believe the rest of us have an ethical mandate to help. Call it a benefit (or burden) of my upbringing.

So I'm glad to see Tracy getting on board with this year's count.

A big round of applause to the local officials who decided the nonparticipation of the past was not the way of the future. Because admitting there is a problem is the first step to fixing it.

A dry beginning

Don't panic just yet, but we're behind even last year's paltry rain total.

According to the Tracy Press rain guage, this rain season (which began in July) we've had 2.25 inches of the wet stuff. Last year at this date, we had 2.84 inches.

In the Sierra it's a little different. The California Department of Water Resources just took its first snow measurement of the year, and we're beating last year in the high country — we're at 76 percent of normal, compared to 60 percent at this time in 2008.

Of course, we're still well below normal, and officials say it'll take a truly above-average snow year to pull California out of its drought.

So maybe it is time to panic. And step up the rain dancing.