Friday, April 30, 2010

Come meet the Rustbucket!

Those who've followed the column have probably heard mention of my 1966 Rustbucket.

It's my first car, and I've had it since I was 15. And while it was actually far from a heap, it turned out to be a self-fulfilling deprication — I spun out and wrecked it on April 7, 2009. It was totaled.

But now, after a lot of great work from Troy's Body & Paint at Chrisman Road and 11th Street (the same guys who did the car on the cover of Saturday's Tracy Press), she's back.

If you want, you've got a chance to meet the car in person Saturday at the Clutch Burners Picnic in the Park car show from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Dr. Powers Park.

And please, don't call it a rustbucket. Call her Rhonda.

Welcome West Nile

The first avian case of West Nile virus in San Joaquin County in 2010 was confirmed this week. No humans have been infected yet this year, but it's usually only a matter of time for our mosquito-friendly region.

The San Joaquin County Mosquito & Vector Control District is warning folks to begin their annual vigilence.

“To avoid West Nile virus, it is important that residents of San Joaquin County protect themselves from mosquito bites. Equally important is to drain standing water from their property. Recent rain fall potentially will provide habitat for mosquito development as the temperatures begin to increase,” said Aaron Devencenzi, district spokesman.

For most of us, West Nile gets more press and hype than it sometimes warrants. Except, that is, for the people who get the disease, which has some seriously nasty consequences for a small percentage of the population.

So sure, exercise common sense when fighting off those vampire bugs — drain standing water, spray on repellent, wear long sleeves and pants if you're going into prime mosquito country. Just don't take it too far.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Congressional race keeps on chugging

In the Republican race to see who will challenge Rep. Jerry McNerney in the november elections, former rivals continue to choose sides.

This past week it was Robert Beadles who announced his support, throwing his political weight behind David Harmer, who has launched two unsuccessful congressional campaigns before — in 2009 in a special election for California's 10th District, and in 1996 for Utah's 2nd District.

But Beadles, who said he signed on to be Harmer's campaign co-chairman, thinks this time will be different. Not in small part to what Beadles says is his clout on this side of the Altamont Hills, as Harmer hails from the western edges of the 11th District.

"This one (race) close to home is where I can help the most," he told me last week. "I know the district, I know the people, and I’ll be able to support him 1000 percent.”

As for why he chose Harmer as his choice as the best Republican left in the field, Beadles had this to say: "He’s genuinely a good guy. I know he'd be a zillion times better that McNerney. And out of the four (GOP candidates) still in the race, I think he’s the best qualified.

"I honestly feel that he’ll represent us."

Harmer is tilting against Elizabeth Emken, Tony Amador and Brad Goehring on June 8 for the right to run against McNerney.

McNerney's camp has kept largely quiet about the campaign, probably waiting to see who emerges from the field of GOP contenders before focusing its fire power to defend a Democratic seat in one of the few true swing districts left in the country.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Leaving downtown

At least one business that's leaving the friendly confines of downtown Tracy is Reich's Medical Supply.

The pharmacy is staying, but the medical supply shop on 10th Street is heading for different pastures -- a place closer to Sutter Tracy Community Hospital.

Two main reasons for this.

One is that, according to the store's manager, it's just not the best fit for the current area. Downtown doesn't have a whole lot of handicapped parking -- and there are plenty of people who need that parking who need medical supplies. Proof, in my mind at least, that while downtown Tracy is a good place to do business (and will eventually be even better), it's not an ideal match for every business under the sun.

Second, the store ownership couldn't get a good enough deal on rent. Which ties into one of today's column topics -- property owners and business owners need to work together if merchants are going to keep their shingles out.

Maybe this one will turn out for the best. But let's hope more businesses aren't on the way out of downtown Tracy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New problem, same as the old problem

School bullying worthy of front-page news?

The root behavior is far from new, despite the spin today's Press story put on the subject — bullying in cyberspace is no just-happened phenomenon. Furthermore, mean people have been around since people have been, and it's especially poingant in childhood and adolescence. Newer forms of communication — Facebook, Twitter, et al — naturally would become conduits for such bullying.

The problems it creates aren't new, either. Self-loathing, creeping hostility, outright anger. And, if left to fester, it sometimes surfaces violently — sometimes toward self, sometimes toward others.

And that's why it earned top story honors today. Because bullying — which should be called what it is, cruelty and intimidation — is an insidious problem that occurs every day.

Will it ever be eradicated? No. But proactive programs like those at Tracy Unified, Jefferson and Lammersville school districts can improve the odds that Tracy or Mountain House won't be the next town to experience a "why didn't we see this coming" moment.

It's worth acknowledging that from time to time. Even on the front page.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More DUI education surprises

Turns out the folks at the Press weren't the only ones surprised when West High School decided to (for unknown reasons) not host the Every 15 Minutes anti-drunken driving program this year. It also caught former participants off guard.

Hotchkiss Mortuary, located on Highland Avenue in old-town Tracy, has provided a hearse, a casket and the use of its facility for past local renditions of Every 15. Just another Tracy institution who contributes time and material support to make sure kids get the best education possible.

According to Lou, who runs the mortuary, "We dedicate our time to it, because it's very important." He added that the kids who have been part of the program in the past have been exemplary and provided "a great service to their fellow students."

So he said he was "surprised" when West decided to eschew Every 15.

One reason I've surmised is that, the last time it was West High's "turn" to host the event, it was canceled in favor of something less hard-hitting. West student Mike Ucci had recently died in a car accident in front of the high school campus, and many people thought the real-life death was enough to drive home the message of teen driving safety.

Perhaps that hiatus, which at the time was supposed to be temporary, was enough to put the Every 15 event out of mind. But if that's so, it should be brought back to West High. If, of course, the state reimbursement grants are still available come 2012.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mastering the toughest job in advocacy

This week's anti-drinking and driving presentations at West High and Tracy High might not have been dramatic (for more, see this week's column), but they were by no stretch of the imagination worthless. Quite the contrary.

It's pretty tough to keep the attention of a group of several hundred teenagers. As an adult addressing said gaggle, it's even tougher to connect with them. Yet, somehow, Lori Martin manages.

A victim of a drunken-driving accident when she was in high school, Martin gets kids to laugh at some points and somberly ponder in others. When she talks about how good her life was at the time of her accident — about her grades, her athletic feats, her boyfriend — there's a palpable connection.

It's a feat made even more impressive by what happened to Martin in that head-on crash. She was in a coma, had broken bones all over her body, lost most of her hearing, and suffered brain damage.

It's not easy for her to talk or hear, but she's a natural when speaking to a group of teenagers on the cusp of celebrating prom and graduation about the dangers of drinking and driving.

After Martin's Thursday speech at West High, California Highway Patrol officer Bob Rickman called her a "brave," "strong" person. I couldn't agree more.

Taxed Enough Already?

Just in time for calming your Tax Day outrage, some facts, figures and perspective about those taxes you pay to Uncle Sam:

• Some 47 percent of Americans pay no net income tax.

• Including income, payroll, property, excise and sales taxes, however, those in the top 1 percent of income-earners in the United States earn about 21 percent of the total personal income in the U.S. and paid about 23 percent of the taxes.

• Those in the next lowest 4 percent earned about 14 percent of the total income and paid about 16 percent of the total taxes.

• Those in the next lowest 5 percent earned about 10 percent of the income and paid about 15.5 percent of the taxes.

• Those in the next lowest 20 percent earned about 18 percent of the income and paid about 17.5 percent of the taxes.

• Those in the middle 20 percent earned about 12 percent of the income and paid about 10 percent of the taxes.

• Those in the next lowest 20 percent earned about 7 percent of the income and paid about 5 percent of the taxes.

• Those in the lowest 20 percent earned about 3.5 percent of the income and paid about 2 percent of the taxes.

In terms of percentage of overall taxes paid compared to income — which is the only really accurate way to compare these things — that's pretty fair. (Although, when you consider the top 1 percent of Americans takes in around 21 percent of the income and the lowest 60 percent takes in about 22.5 percent, it might seem a little less fair.)

Furthermore, that 47 percent includes plenty of middle-class folks who simply qualified for enough tax credits, say for buying or owning a home, that they were able to reduce their tax liability to zero.

What this means is that we can legitimately fight and argue about what our taxes are paying for, but can't really claim that the tax system is unfair to the rich, as some would-be populists contend.

So please, let's toss out the misleading and often-recited rhetoric claiming that 47 percent of the people in America pay no taxes. Cuz it simply ain't so.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Other news about 'Tracy'

Yet another installment of the news that fills my inbox about "Tracy" that isn't related to Tank Town.

Today's best "Hey, that's not my Tracy" moment:

In Tracy City, Tennessee, you don't have to be alive to be elected mayor.

According to The Associated Press, Carl Geary defeated the incumbent mayor by a score of 268 to 85, even though "his death had been widely reported," as it seemed the candidate passed "a few weeks" before the vote was cast.

Just further proof that, in politics, higher brain function is not a prerequisite.

Milk was a bad choice...

In honor of Ron Burgundy's poor consumption decisions, I chowed down Wednesday — against my better judgement — on KFC's new health-assaulting creation, the Double Down.

I was soon reminded why they call it "better judgement." (For pictures of this ordeal, see Press photographer Glenn Moore's blog.)

The sandwich is bacon, processed cheese and a mayo-like sauce slathered between two deep-fried chicken breasts.

The sandwich has also got a lot of attention after the fast-food chain rolled it out nationwide recently. The nice lady working at the 11th Street KFC told me that the sandwich has been an exceptional strong seller locally. Guess there's plenty of Tracyites who, like me, can't resist the allure of meat, meat and fatty filling.

It's all salt and grease, with the taste of the chicken blending into the bacon blending into the cheese — and it's not a good blend like a fine Meritage. It was so greasy, that if it hand't been wrapped in paper inside a fast-food box, it would've bled through the paper take-out bag. (And, in one small spot, it still did.)

Maybe it was simply too much for me, a guy who usually considers drinking Classic Coke a dietary indulgence and hits the gym at least thrice weekly. But I also love a good chicken-fried steak, and bacon in my mind occupies its own major food group, so I'm left with the conclusion that this sandwich just isn't that good. All hype.

Still, I'm left with a disconcerting tought: Just like after watching Morgan Spurlock poison his body with 31 days of McDonald's food, I'm partially disgusted, but partially fiending another round.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Motion pictures — what a grand idea

If you remember opening weekend of the new Grand Theatre, you probably don't recall if for Linda Rognstad's tepid christening of the revitalized venue. You probably remember it for the screening of "Gone With the Wind."

Even though I attended the former and not the latter, the theater was packed with patrons who wanted to see the classic at what used to be Tracy's premier spot to catch a flick. All for the very retro price of 25 cents.

Sadly, such events have been few and far between since the Grand reopened its doors.

But there's good news. Thanks to a capital investment by the city of Tracy, a digital projector will soon be in the Grand's posession, one of the guys working at the theater told me this week.

He suggested that the upcoming season of offerings at the Grand will include plenty of top-notch movies, from old school classics like GWTW to more modern-but-retro hits like "Back to the Future."

It's an idea that was long overdue. And I, for one, can't wait to see Doc Brown and Marty McFly on the downtown silver screen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I've been wrong about water

In all my discussions — both in this blog and the Second Thoughts column — it occured to me that I might have made a mistake.

I've said all along that California is in a water crisis, that there's simply not enough water in the state to go around. I realize that I've been wrong.

California — at least Northern California — is the definition of a water-rich area. That's why San Joaquin County farmland is so fertile, why the fishery in and outside San Francisco Bay used to be one of the best, why it was so easy for people to settle down here in the first place.

Compared to many places around the globe, our corner of California is a virtual water world.

So, how are we in a drought? How can the Delta, fed by the state's mightiest rivers, dying?

It's a testament to how we've decided to use — or misuse — nature's bounty that we're talking about droughts in Northern California and the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

Simply put, we've found a way to use almost all nature's provided. Between massive farming operations in a semi-desert and locating millions of people on chaparral land in the arid south, we've overdrawn our water account.

California is the star athlete who earned record cake yet somehow managed to burn through his cash within three years of retirement. Yes, we're that guy.

Only tough decisions — decisions that could uproot thousands of workers and fallow thousands of acres of farmland — will put us on the road to sustainability.

It won't be popular or especially kind to those affected. But our water account's overdrawn. And the bills will soon be due.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bonus blog of the week

Somewhere in this week’s tax column is a riff on a famous quote in support of paying one’s taxes. First to guess it gets a round of Barista’s coffee _ my treat.

Only catch? You’ve got to come to downtown Tracy to claim your prize.

Oh, and you’ll have to spend time with me. So I guess that’s two catches…

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Calls show housing crisis far from over

Just in case you were wondering, the foreclosure crisis ain't over yet.

We got proof this week after this Wednesday's cover article — detailing how one Tracy woman who managed to keep her home despite it going into foreclosure and is now helping a few others do the same — generated dozens of phone calls, all from homeowners seeking the help of Omaira Muñoz, the protagonist of our feature.

On Wednesday, the newsroom became a virtual relay office for those desparate to keep their slice of the American Dream — a wrenching reminder of the Great Recession's human casualties.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Three's no crowd at City Council meeting

One of the reasons it's been such a quiet news Wednesday (see post below): There were only three members of the City Council at last night's meeting.

Councilmembers Suzanne Tucker, Evelyn Tolbert and Mike Maciel were the only members present at a meeting with an agenda that can only be described as "bare bones."

At the previous meeting there was a suggestion from city staff to forego the meeting, given the sparse nature of the agenda and that Mayor Brent Ives and Councilman Steve Abercrombie wouldn't be able to attend. (Plus, there was one item, a city staff report on traffic connectivity and general mobility in Tracy and its environs, that really could have used the attention of all five council members.)

But the three councilmembers who would be present voted in favor of the April 6 gathering, anyway.

Which doesn't sound so bad, until you consider this: If the city's desperately trying to find ways to save money and reduce staff time, one way might be to cut down on uncecessary meetings.

A quiet day in the newsroom

It's been a fairly quiet day around Tracy.

No fires, no big crimes, no earth-shattering news — nothing to really rattle the newsroom. Just a bunch of sunshine streaming through the partially-drawn drapes, mocking us desk jockeys for not being able to lounge in Lincoln Park or hit up Old River Golf Course.

(Of course, now that I've said that, something's bound to go wrong. It's like the journalist's version of Murphy's Law.)

But hoping that doesn't happen, enjoy a relaxing Wednesday.

A touch of fiscal sanity

Earlier this week, reports the San Jose Mercury News, city of Tracy department heads agreed to forego their cost-of-living pay increase beginning this month and to cut their compensation package for the 2010-11 fiscal year by 5 percent.

The estiamted savings are a drop in the bucket compared to the city's estimated $6 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

However, as this Tracy Press report made obvious, reductions in employee compensation — particularly outsized benefits and retirement packages — will be key to getting Tracy back in the black.

Give credit to the department heads for sharing some of the pain, for rank-and-file workers for taking on furlough days and to the police and fire department unions for agreeing to less money than their boom-year contracts inititally called for.

But city employees, beware. There's still a big gap to fill. And slicing out more of city employee compensation is bound to be the most politically popular move.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Catching up with the Blue Mexican

This weekend I caught up with Tracy's newest celebrity, Danny Dunne, a retired Tracy cop who now teaches language and literature at my alma mater, St. Mary's High School in Stockton.

Dunne's recent local fame is because of his just-published book, "The Blue Mexican," which has been met with solid reviews both in Tracy and elsewhere.

I saw Dunne holding court about the book in the Stockton Barnes and Noble — he's been on a bit of a book-signing barnstorming tour, having already hit Tracy's B&N.

After explaining to the crowd how his book, set in Tracy, features real-life anecdotes about life as a cop intertwined with fiction of his own making, Dunne told me that the success of his book surprised him. The support, he said, has been beyond anything he could have hoped for — so much so, he said, that he's considering another book.

If they haven't sold out, you should be able to find his book at a local Barnes and Noble or, if you must do so, online at (One hint if you do go searching, Dunne's pen name is Danny Thomas Ruiz.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

State of the City: The budget

No real news here.

Tracy’s budget is still bleeding red, and it’ll take some combination of taxes and cuts to balance the city’s checkbook.

But the mayor did have a few things to say on City Hall’s behalf.

One was that the city would have a balanced budget without the freefall of tax revenue. He cautioned, though, that the city also wouldn’t have “right-sized” itself, which I can only guess is politics-speak for “lost weight.”

As a further caveat, Ives said that the tax base is only projected to fall in the immediate short term.

But there was some good to report, from the city’s perspective. Ives gave a lot of credit to the local labor unions, who agreed to concessions fairly painlessly when the unions of many other cities have fought tooth-and-nail to have their cake and eat it too. In Tracy, though, Ives said the labor unions bought into the idea that both the city brass and brass tacks were on the same “team.” At least for now.

Still, that positive doesn’t wholly compensate for the negative. (And conspicuously absent from this debate was any mention of the city’s controversial emergency medical services fee, which will generate revenue for the general fund.)

Basically, Ives painted the picture of a city that’s fiscally damaged but not crippled. Which sounds bad. Until, that is, you consider what some other cities are dealing with.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Not an April Fool's joke

Even the most divisive of forums can offer a story that bridges what divides us.

Such was the case a couple weeks ago in the Voice section, when William Sutton — whose sometimes partisan opinion has found its way into the pages of the Press — wrote us once again. Not to talk about the latest in health care reform, but to share a personal story about his family and its final days with his dog, Rocky.

After it published, Sutton received a deluge of support. Touched, he sent this reply:

For all those that wrote to the Tracy Press Forum, I want to express my deep appreciation for their kind words, concern and compassion about my wife's and my loss about our dog, Rocky and also to Jon Mendelson of the Tracy Press for his caring and thoughfulness.

Right now, getting another dog is out of the question, but will consider getting a new pet in the future. I have to let this grieving period run its course. I don't know how long that will be, but right now it is going to take time. It's said that time heals all wounds.

... Other animal lovers have had to put their pets down and go through the same grieving process. It's good for them to know that they are not alone in their suffering with other personal problems. We all have our troubles in life and no one escapes the negative and more serious things that people face daily compared to one losing a litle dog.

People can get bogged down with all the rhetoric language that goes on these days in the political arena. Sometimes it's good to take a break from politics and all the bickering and outright lies and false statements that comes with it and recognize and realize that there are human experiences, trials and tribulations that ordinary people everywhere deal with every day.

Sometimes, those petty divisions seem to be exactly what they are — petty.