Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time off to celebrate

The Second Thoughts blog is retiring for the week in honor of our national day of thanksgiving.

While you are (hopefully) enjoying the company of friends and family and the comfort of hearth and home, remember those who aren't so lucky with a prayer.

Happy Thanksgiving! See you all again next week...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The help they've been looking for

Several weeks back, Second Thoughts brought you a story about the closure of a Fremont-based Toyota plant (known around here as NUMMI) and the 24,000-odd workers it could effect, many of whom live in San Joaquin County.

Workers felt betrayed by both the company and by politicians who, they said, did far too little to help keep one of Northern California's bigger economic engines humming.

Today, federal Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis shared a bit of good news for those middle-class workers looking for a little love, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

We say a bit, because while 4,500 workers directly employed at the NUMMI plant will qualify for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance, so far those other 20,000 workers that make up parts of the vast NUMMI supply chain — many of them Central Valley folks — are not eligible.

Better than nothing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

How to know when crime's getting out of hand

When your local newspaper's Web site has a section wholly dedicated to homicides.

Courtesy of copy editor Kelsy Ramos for finding this space in the Modesto Bee online edition.

Just remember Tracyites, we might've seen four homicides in the past year, but it could be much, much worse.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Expert reveals brutal details of Tracy crime

This is one story we didn't get into Saturday's paper, but probably should have.

The accused killers of Tracy resident Cynthia Ramos didn't come out of a Thursday court hearing looking like particularly sympathetic defendants. Not after a forensic expert gave enough brutal testimony to convince a judge that Robert Morgan and his partner, Jorge Morgan, should stand trial.

There's a reason I say "brutal."

The forensic expert testified that Ramos was stabbed 55 times, bludgeoned 13 times and strangled with some type of small rope.

What was done to Ramos was so bad that original reports said that she was beaten. There was too much damage to even tell what happened until later.

Remember, the two Morgans are still only suspected of the crime. They're not guilty until proven so in a court of law.

If they are, though, I expect plenty of people will want to see them fry.

Rain, rain, go away

Really, I want there to be as much rain and snow as possible this wet season. But not tonight, not when the Tracy High varsity football team is playing its first-round playoff game on grass.

Sloppy conditions are likely to hamper the Bulldogs; their biggest assets are athleticism and what-was-that-blur-oh-now-he's-past-the-secondary-and-into-the-end-zone speed.

Sludge slows speed, and if the heavens open up as forecasters have been predicting all week, what the Bulldogs hope is a track meet could devolve into a slug-fest.

Rain would make for entertaining football. But at least for one more night, I'd like to see it stay nice and dry.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The end of satire

This is so close to reality, it's hardly satire. (That's my silent weeping you hear in the background.)

As usual, it's up to the satirists to call a spade a spade.

And for reference, the real Constitution.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why is the rum always gone?

Because there's no money in the state budget to buy it.

And just when we really need it, too.

Another take on the city's dire straits

In Saturday's column, I put most of the onus of the city's current financial woes on the housing meltdown/recession and outsized employee costs — dual plagues eating the city's balance sheet from opposite ends.

But at least one local activist argues there's a third reason that I neglected to mention: General incompetence.

The current impasse — a $9 million deficit and a $25 million reserve fund that's fast being depleted — is the result of a pattern of bad decisions by an entrenched status quo, which for too long was focused on building houses and nothing else. That myopic focus left Tracy especially vulnerable to the current bust. Or so the argument goes.

No doubt that Tracy was led far down a dubious path by leaders who saw residential expansion as a golden goose. (It sure didn't hurt that developers with significant clout benefitted from the situation, too.)

Of course, residential expansion can't float economic well-being forever. It's a one-shot boost. Once the house is built and furnished, the development fees collected, the sales tax directed into city coffers, the golden goose stops laying eggs.

That leaves a choice to either diversify the economic base or build more houses. Guess which one prevailed in Tracy? And guess one of the major reasons why this area was so hard-hit when all those adjustable-rate mortgages started resetting into the stratosphere?

This all rings true. So does the general charge that the city should have done much more with the economic boom than it did. But in all honestly, the city could be in worse straits that it finds itself in today. Much worse.

Also, in my analysis, even a more well-balanced Tracy would be flailing right now. The problems just might be reduced by some measure.

And recession or no, the city should still consider re-negotiating with its unions and other employees to reduce expenditures on benefits. City employees aren't the natural enemy of taxpayers, but the current level of employee outlays is not sustainable. Even the city's finance director has admitted as much.

Regardless of the cause, the concern now is how to get out of this mess. Though it would be a shame if we forget how we got into it in the first place.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Parcel tax dropped like hot potato

I guess asking voters to tax themselves while city employees enjoy relatively cushy benefits isn't something the Tracy City Council thinks is politically prudent.

The idea of asking voters to approve a new property tax to fully fund public safety surfaced more than a month ago, but it was indefinitely put on hold tonight.

Voters probably wouldn't have been keen on a self-imposed tax during a bitter recession in the first place. But after the Tracy Press published the pay and benefits of public safety and other city employees 1½ weeks ago, the tax idea was probably dead on arrival.

As I said in last week's column, when private businesses cut pay, benefits and jobs in an effort to stay afloat, taxpayers want to feel that those working on their tax dime are sharing the pain.

Whether that's sound policy or jealousy/vengeance probably depends on the eye of the beholder. What isn't open for debate is that the city cannot continue to bring in less in tax revenue than it spends on the police and fire departments alone.

Oh, as for the theory that someone "slipped" the pay and benefits info to the Press in an effort to poison public opinion at a critical juncture: It's rubbish.

The pay and benefit information was available as public record. In regards to the timing, it seems prudent to investigate what the city is really spending on its employees, seeing as how it's running a structural deficit, is poised for layoffs and was considering asking voters for more money.

Forget the Delta, what about Luna?

They've found water on the moon!

How long do you think it'll be before SoCal cities and the Westlands Water District try to pump it their way?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrating the death of the Delta

Landmark. Monumental. Unparalleled. No adjective is too grand for those trumpeting the draining of the Delta — er, we mean the water infrastructure package — recently OK'd by the state Legislature.

Sure, there are goodies thrown in there that should make anyone clap — a 20 percent urban conservation mandate and aggressive groundwater monitoring. But this is clearly a loser for the Delta and those who rely on its health as a waterway and ecosystem.

Turns out that the biggest political players got what they wanted, including more dams and a fairly clear pathway to building a peripheral canal.

Don't believe it? Think these players might shy away from digging a gigantic ditch to funnel water away from the Delta and call it an environmental victory, all the while continuing the harmful and wasteful practices that have led to the Delta's near-collapse to begin with?

Consider then the words of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Why it has to do with the environment is because we're also going to, part of this package is to fix the Delta and to build a canal around the Delta ... That was great news this morning."

The guv's delivery was made all the more poignant by its location — in Stockton, heart of Delta country. The Delta region was bypassed when this legislation was crafted, and if its backers have their way it'll be bypassed again by the canal.

Unfortunately, in all the political wrangling the state's biggest water problem was overlooked: overdraft. The state's water is overallocated. It is physically impossible to deliver all the water Californians have water rights to.

Instead of admit that there are simply too many demands on a limited supply of water — and making the requisite tough decisions about what the priorities for water use should be — politicians ignored the difficult truth, perpetuating the idea that all we need to do is conserve a little and build, build, build to untap more agua.

Now it's time for the canal cheerleaders to sell voters on a $11.1 billion bond that will help finance the legislation. Expect Second Thoughts to keep you posted...

Waiting on the Easter bunny... in November

At least one downtown Tracy merchant has already jumped on the Christmas-comes-early bandwagon.

Take a walk down 10th Street and you'll see that The Lighting Gallery has already painted its front window display with a holly, jolly theme.


The Christmas season last long enough if you start celebrating the day after Thanksgiving. Do we really have to start putting up decorations the second week of November?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For the veterans

Despite being in the office, Second Thoughts took Veterans Day off from blogging, even though Veterans Day would be one of the most appropriate days of the year to exercise the Freedom of the Press fought for by generations of Americans.

For the veterans, with a sincere thank you:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Our very own UFO

The best call of the week (so far) came Monday night on my cell phone.

An excited man told me he had the "story of the century": There were lights in the sky — maybe a UFO — and he had the video to back him up. Unfortunately, he didn't come by the Press this morning to share.

Not that he's alone. Plenty people called the Press saying they'd seen various lights in the Monday night sky southeast of the city.

The most vivid description came from a man whom I talked to in the Press lobby. He described a rotating dark blue light hovering above a field off Chrisman Road, with the light becoming stronger or fainter depending on how fast the oval, saucer-shaped thing spun. Far from looking or sounding crazy, he said that he brought several other people out to witness the strange event, and that there were plenty of folks who observed the exact same thing and would corroberate his testimony.

He was totally sincere, and — let me repeat — did not seem crazy.

It's clear that these people saw something — and Second Thoughts would love to get its hands on video footage, if it exists.

Left to make stabs in the dark, I'm guessing one of three things:

• This is just another reminder that we all need to take our perscription medication.

• Someone, somewhere, has a lot of explaining to do about their latest "science project."

• Aliens from Nebular 5x are secretly plotting our demise.

Tongue-in-cheek aside, what's certain is that something pretty strange went on Monday night, though exactly what that is is anyone's guess.

Personally, I'm betting on the Nebular 5x guys.

City Council campaign kickoff

Larry Hite, the inspector/contractor/frequent contributor to the Tracy Press Voice section, is taking another stab at the City Council in 2010.

Hite's been a feature of local races the past two election cycles — bowing out of the mayor's race in deference to Brent Ives in 2006, and losing to Mike Maciel and Steve Abercrombie in the 2008 go-around.

This year, he'll be seeking one of two seats up for grabs, that of Vice Mayor Suzanne Tucker or Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert. Hite's first fundraiser is scheduled for Dec. 9 at Famous Dave's.

In other campaign news, this space has heard rumors that Tolbert might not seek another term. Though Second Thoughts didn't endorse her for mayor in 2008, she's a strong, smart member of the council, and this space hopes she decides to defend her seat.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Forgot the 'could be worse' part

In last night's post on Tuesday's City Council meeting, I talked about the Cloud of Doom hanging over City Hall, but not on the silver lining.

I swear, it's there, even if it's only a sliver. But at 12:30 a.m. after a raft of Simpler Times, it's a little harder to see.

The silver lining is that the city of Tracy isn't as down the hole as a lot of other cities. There's still a few million dollars in the rainy day fund that can help bridge small budget gaps for another couple years, putting us light years ahead of Stockton. And Vallejo — it of bankruptcy fame — isn't even in our galactic neighborhood.

Furthermore, if the city can survive on a bread-and-water diet for a couple years without the place going completely to hell, when the economic picture gets rosier Tracy will have a lean, less wasteful base on which to expand.

There, that's better. You may now resume rending garments and gnashing teeth.

Could be worse, could be better

Sat through the DVD of Tuesday's City Council meeting, in which various department heads went before the council and proffered their budget-cutting strategies.

First reaction was that it could be worse, but it still ain't going to be pretty.

The city's faced with the dreaded damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-do decision: It must cut costs, which means it must cut services, since the other option is a politicall unpopular fee or tax hike (something that might happen anyway).

No matter what services get the ax, or even just a shave, someone out there is going to notice. And complain.

Plenty of people say they want bare-bones tax rates, even though they also tend to not like bare-bones city services.

Well, services are going to get trimmed. It's going to be a reminder that you get what you pay for.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Defending Delta isn't just about the fish

Just a couple more reminders — straight from those who are living proof — that asking legislators to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from the voracious needs of Parts Previously Unwatered is not a Fish vs. People issue...

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations:
"The Bay-Delta is not a reservoir; it is the most important estuary on the West coast and gives life to many of our coastal fisheries. With this bill, the health of the delta and our fisheries lies with an unfunded council with no authority. The majority of its members will be appointed by the governor, and Schwarzenegger has made it clear he is willing to drain the delta if it means more water for land speculators and developers. We have little faith this council will support and act on the pressing needs of our delta and our fisheries, especially if it means putting a halt to the south's attempts at a water grab. This back-room, special-interest bill is fishy for sure, but definitely not because it will restore our industry to its former health."
"Destroying the Bay-Delta, as a peripheral canal and new diversions would do, makes the sheer environmental destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley pale in comparison."

Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association:
"After months of special interests distorting the facts about our water woes, the Legislature went behind closed doors and came up with this stinking dead fish of a package that is sure to continue draining the Delta and killing what is left of our salmon fishery."
"The simple fact is that this legislation will cause the Delta to collapse and turn the San Francisco Bay estuary into a cesspool, undoing decades of work to restore the Bay to good health. Westlands Water District, private land developers, and the governor all deserve a special place in hell for engineering the destruction of Northern California’s ecosystems."

Real strong words from real people who will be hit hard by the continued damming, draining and diverting of the Delta. And let's not forget those who actually call the Delta home.