Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Republicans for McNerney?

Last week, Jennifer Wadsworth reported that despite there being two GOP challengers to Rep. Jerry McNerney in the 2010 congressional race, a pair of local Republicans had already come out in support of the Democrat from Pleasanton.

Their names? San Joaquin County Supervisors Steve Bestolarides and Larry Rhustaller.

No word on how would-be congressmen Brad Goehring and Jon Del Arroz took the news.

PR for water wars

Dozens of signs dot Interstate 5 next to fallow fields and dying orchards that read: "Congress created dust bowl."

It's part of a campaign by farmers to get the federal government to ease Endangered Species Act restrictions and let more water flow to Central Valley ag outfits, many of which are struggling during a stretch of dry years. The proof is on display if you drive down the 5 to Los Angeles and back.

Picking on Congress for the fallow fields is easy — but it doesn't acknowledge that the root cause of these restrictions is the fact that California has overtaxed the Delta estuary to the point of near collapse.

More thoughts on this in the coming days...

Friday, June 26, 2009

The letter that didn't make it

Running the Voice show for Cheri Matthews the past couple weeks, I've been getting bombarded with Letters to the Editor. Here's one clever entry that might not make it to the paper, but still deserves to be published somewhere:

Buy one, get one free;
What will the government do for me?
Is this the way of society?
Goodbye freedom and liberty.
~ Deborah Vergara, Tracy

Rhythmic, catchy, and downright cryptic.

I love it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paramedic fee, station move roots found in archives

Checking through the Second Thoughts archives, I stumbled across a May 17, 2008, column titled "Prepare to pay, or prepare for pain," that detailed how the Tracy Fire Department was stretched to its limit and failing to meet response time standards.

Lo and behold, a year after that report, plans are in motion to move two fire stations to improve response times and charge a fee for fire department paramedic services.

These two policies, especially the station relocation, have their roots in documented shortcomings of the past.

And, for the record, I'm no fan of the paramedic fees. The value of your life should not be dependent on the thickness of your wallet.

But, as my most recent column also tried to point out, it's worth understanding some of the reasons why city and fire officials have enacted the policy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

San Joaquin's a real disaster

Remember when I wrote that those who call the San Joaquin Valley home shouldn't succumb to all the bad news close to home? Dennis Cardoza, the Congressman from Merced, would respectfully disagree.

Cardoza on Friday in Washington, D.C., made his pitch to have the Central Valley declared an economic disaster area.

The statistics he trotted out before the Financial Services Committee were impressive — in a despair-inducing, cloud-of-doom sort of way:

• Three communities in the region are among the bottom 10 "weakest performing" metro areas in the country
• The Central Valley receives only about half the nationwide average in federal spending
• 13 percent of all mortgages in his district (the fighting 18th) are in foreclosure
• Housing prices have dropped nearly 70 percent the past three years in Merced and Stockton
• The unemployment rate of the three biggest cities in his district are in the top 11 cities nationwide

I could go on, but hopefully, you get the idea.

It's hard to say whether this will bring the help our area needs to rebuild itself for a better, brighter future. But at least someone's speaking up about it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

One heckuva weekend

Mother Nature timed it just right — turning up the heat for the first official Weekend of Summer.

So while you're toasting dad (Father's Day) watching one of the masters at work (Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open) and dancing naked in the Sunday dawn (Summer Solstice), give thanks for our mild June and embrace the valley heat yet to come.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Losing wealth that didn't exist

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just offered a take on California's all-time recorded record of 11.5 percent unemployment rate via a released statement, saying in part:

When the world loses one-third of its wealth in 18 months, it is to be expected that historic levels of job losses will follow.

One problem with this statement and others like it: That "lost wealth" was largely illusory to begin with.

The boom times that preceded our current situation (recession, depression, screwed city -- does it matter what we call it?) were fueled in good amount by accounting sleight of hand, and most of the wealth was generated in terms of stock prices and unsustainable real estate gains. It was all on paper or in some accountant's head.

In hindsight, it was a house of cards, one that was going to fall sooner or later.

It ended up hurting most the Average Joe reaching a bit too high for the American Dream House or the Average Jane who lost her job when the financial world unraveled through no fault of her own or the Small Business that suddenly finds itself with not enough customers to pay both the bills and its employees.

But don't say that this wealth was lost. In a certain sense, it never existed to begin with.

Just a reminder

Because some folks in Iran would really, really appreciate this right now...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flipping a recession

Looking for a bargain on a house? If you've got some cash or credit available, now could be your golden opportunity.

Some houses in Stockton, for example, are selling for as little as $20,000. A quick review of the Realty Trac Web site today revealed 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom houses in Tracy selling for as little as $69,900.

But if these housing prices were unfathomably small just two years ago, they still might be too good to be true.

Foreclosed homes come in all shapes, sizes and conditions — from near-new to beaten up, rundown and wholly abused. Guess which ones are selling on the cheap?

It's true that houses in good condition can now be completely paid for with what just a couple seasons ago would be considered a down payment. But beware of extreme deals. You might be buying a lot less — or more — than you've bargained for.

More off days for City Hall

The city of Tracy already shuts down its offices every other Friday. To help cope with its structural budget deficit, it will also turn off the lights on specific furlough days.

The move makes sense as a money-saver, even if it makes life a little more difficult for those who need to do business with the city — including a columnist on a deadline.

So visit this link to plan around City Hall's new off-days.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Recovery a project for the long haul

According to a leading economic forecast (reported here in the Fresno Bee), economic recovery in the Central Valley will not be an easy — or fast — proposition. It could take years to reach the highs we hit before the housing market collapsed and the economy as a whole was dragged down with it.

I'm not surprised, but it's worth keeping this timetable in mind when plotting ways to reinvigorate the economy.

Concerted efforts — such as Tracy's stimulus plan — could help stanch losses and stabilize local economies (and even give them a leg-up on less fortunate neighbors). And the federal plan should yield positive results in infrastructure and education. But it'll be a while before the overall sea level surges.

So don't buy the claims of some that a turnaround is within easy reach, if only we'd subsidize more residential construction.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Really, good news about crime in Tracy

Tons of news today, including Melissa Huckaby's plea deal and details of a sordid Tracy torture story that are not suitable for sensitive readers.

However, as the week winds down, there is one topic in Saturday's Tracy Press that should give folks hope about living here.

High-profile examples notwithstanding, crime is down.

An analysis of police data shows that crime, overall, declined from early 2008 to early 2009.

Why? After reading the reactions of Lt. Jeremy Watney to Jennifer Wadsworth's questions, including this one:

I think a big reason is because of the public. A lot of people take it on themselves to call us when they see something happening.

I'm betting citizen participation played a part. Maybe there's something to this community thing after all. Just try not to go over the top.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No-brainer headline of the day

Courtesy of the San Diego News Network:

"Get used to water conservation in San Diego."

It's hard to fathom how folks in Parts Previously Unwatered (you know, before the California Aqueduct, William Mulholland, Lake Mead and the like) are only now coming to grips with the idea that lush lawns in a semi-arid desert is unsustainable.

But the truth of the matter is, California has always seen its plentiful rivers, lakes and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a resource to be tapped, tapped, tapped. The thought, it seems, is that the Golden State, long a land of bounty, will undoubtedly continue to provide.

Hence the ultimate conslusion of Doug Curlee, the op-ed's author, that a Peripheral Canal is vital to ensuring the water supply of Southern California (since it doesn't have supplies of its own). The SoCal lifestyle is unsustainable, he concedes, but that's not enough.

At least he's not afraid to say what he means when it comes to the Peripheral Canal:

If we accept the idea that Northern California has the water, and Southern California needs it, then the obvious place to spend that money is in the construction of reservoirs, canals, pipelines, and perhaps most of all, some version of the Peripheral Canal.
Anything that will bring more water to San Diego and Southern California can only benefit us.

Give the man credit for being honest, even if he seems to not accept the undeniable truth that water in California is, ultimately, a limited resource. And it sure seems like we passed that limit a long time ago.

Oh, and Mr. Curlee, Northern California needs the water, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Building industry CEO solves problem with the problem's cause

In a Saturday "His Voice," John Beckman, chief executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the Delta, suggested that revitalizing San Joaquin County's stagnant economy is as easy as slashing fees and red tape imposed on developers.

"In the short term," he says, "the quickest way to get our local economy moving again is to spur new construction."

Beckman then talks briefly of a "San Joaquin Stimulus Plan" that consists solely of allowances to the construction industry, which for so long fueled the Central Valley's boom, as the solution.

Alert readers will note, however, that earlier in the very same column Beckman details why this is a Bad Idea That Will Not Work.

Why? Consider one main cause of our economic doldrums, which Beckman himself alludes to.

Home prices have fallen substantially from their previous highs, leading to reduced tax revenue. The dropping prices are essentially because of unsustainable price inflation and bad loans in the housing market a few years ago. The fallout from that situation is that we now have more sellers than buyers and a surplus of houses and commercial real estate on the market, which is depressing prices. In short, too much supply and not enough demand.

Still following? Good.

In this climate, Beckman insists that more construction — leading to more homes and commercial real estate on the market — will inflate property values.

Read that again. *Ahem.* Right.

New construction will not boost anything — prices, tax revenue, your general well-being — unless there is demand for it. And as of now, there is none.

It seems what this association really wants is a gift from local governments in the form of reduced and deferred fees. However, all such "temporary" measures, as Beckman calls them, are likely to do is rob cities and counties of what scant fees they might collect in the tightest financial climate since the Great Depression.

In a geographical area where development has often not paid for itself, it seems a dubious time to trust a building association to find a remedy to economic ills. Especially when the proposed solution is the same as the existing problem.

UPDATE: Beckman's idea that the jobs produced by construction will lead to an increase in work for construction-related folks — and therefore lead to more spending and tax revenue — seems to make sense at face value. But those are relatively small gains in exchange for continuing a problem of too much real estate and people who can't afford to buy it (and, therefore, cities that are missing revenue they were once accustomed to).

Just remember that construction is a one-time boost to the economy. The only way it can sustain a community is if that construction and expansion goes on unabated forever. Not exactly a sensible or stable foundation, if you ask me.

Column errata

A correction to kick off the week.

A couple weeks back, this column told the story of citizen involvement in law enforcement run amok in San Joaquin County. One of the instances I pointed to was the suggestion of City Councilman Chris Mateo that the council members be trained and allowed to carry badges and firearms to help secure the city from crime.

I mistakenly said Mateo was a member of the Manteca City Council, when he is a representative for the city of Lathrop. He corrected me this week after reading the column over the weekend.

My apologies.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More sanity in Delta water debate

The Huffington Post today features an enlightened column about the problems plaguing the Central Valley, first and foremost among them the Delta water supply.

The thesis advanced by Cynthia Koehler (Environmental Defense Fund attorney) and Laura Harnish (Environmental Defense Fund regional director) is painfully common-sense, yet painfully absent from almost all discussions of Delta water in California.

Their conclusion: Water is limited. Act like it.

(This should sound familiar to Second Thoughts regulars.)

If you care at all about the future of farming and your tapwater, please read the whole article. But here, for you speed-readers, are the money grafs:

In the 1970s, the federal and state projects pumped about 3.6 million acre-feet of water annually from the Delta. That amount has increased steadily to 5.8 million acre-feet in the 2000s, an increase of nearly 700 billion gallons of water per year.

This trend is not sustainable, with or without the Endangered Species Act. ...

...Rather than embrace the false hope that we can continue to take ever-increasing amounts of water from our rivers and streams, we should recognize that a prosperous future depends on both agriculture and cities learning to live within a water budget. We can and should set realistic expectations about what reasonably can be diverted from the natural system, without risking our economic future.

Sounds like common sense. But why think that way, when a major public works project promises salvation without sacrifice?

The storm of a lifetime

26 years of living in the Central Valley, and never have I seen a thunderstorm here like the one that rolled through late last night and early this morning.

There were flashes as early as 8 p.m., but nothing that spoke of the fire show to come.

Starting at 11:45 p.m., I watched as the cloudy southern night sky lit up every few seconds, with the flashes growing brighter and brighter over the next half-hour, until low, rumbling thunder reached Tracy. That's when I decided a spa in an exposed backyard was not the safest place to watch one of nature's most powerful displays. So, logically, I moved to the roof.

By 12:45 a.m. Thursday, the storm broke on Tracy.

Finally, not just the clouds lit up as white and gray sheets — arcs of purple-white lightning raced from cloud to cloud, illuminating the city in brief bursts of daylight. Time to get off the roof. Quickly.

That's when the hail and pelting rain released from the towering thunderheads above, and the smell of a summer storm wafted up from the streets into my windows.

It was truly a spectacular show, one that Valley residents don't often see. Even Sam Matthews, the Tracy Press publisher emeritus who has spent a long lifetime in the Tracy area, can't recall a similar outburst. (I've seen light shows like this in Los Angeles and Montana, but never in our flatlands.)

So file this one away, alert readers. That was a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

Unless, of course, those predictions for a Thursday night encore come true...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The bull is back

At Second Thoughts, we're glad that the annual festa bullfights, which return after a one-year hiatus, will be observed by animal rights officers in the wake of a recent bloodless bullfight that wasn't so bloodless.

This gives the festa enthusiasts who so enjoy the event a chance to have their fun, and the animals a chance to enjoy some measure of protection.

Of course, Second Thoughts also thinks it would be a better idea to have a bullfight with a couple dudes inside a bull costume, instead.

C'mon. Someone, please make this happen!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reckoning, or awakening

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week has said, "California's day of reckoning is here."

I'd say, rather, that it's a day of awakening.

Because many are discovering that many of those criticized functions of "big government" are more relevant to daily life than it sometimes appears.

Think welfare, for one, which could be severely curtailed or entirely disposed of in the state. Or the state parks service, the potential neutering of which thousands and thousands are protesting. Or medical care for under- or uninsured children, which could end up another casualty of cuts.

This on top of cuts to general education, transportation and public safety.

Maybe we're finally awakening to the idea that tax money funds real programs with real tangible benefits. Just maybe...