Tuesday, March 30, 2010

State of the City: Safety

Mayor Brent Ives spent some time talking about Tracy's safety, including the high-profile crimes of the past year that drew a bunch of not-so-welcome attention to the otherwise low-profile city.

While giving the standard denunciation of such acts, the mayor pointed to oft-publicized statistics that show Tracy's a relatively safe place to live and gave props to the police for their work.

But as we've discussed here before, raw numbers don't make folks feel safe walking the street at night. That's what people are looking for. And after last year's five homicides and December shootings, I get the sense that secure feeling is lacking.

(Also, those statistics can be fudged. Not only by how many crimes go unreported to police, but in how police choose to or are instructed to write up incidents. Reliable sources tell me that police in Tracy aren't under any pressure to massage statistics here, but I know it does happen in some departments.)

That aside, people want to feel safer, regardless of what some spreadsheet says.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that's fit to be laid wholly at the feet of law enforcement. While police are a primary weapon in fighting crime, it's not just up them to make the streets safer. (And please, don't tell me the city needs to embark on a safety marketing campaign.) Safe streets start at the neighborhood level, with people using their local parks and front porches.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quote of the week

I talked to Dave Pickering, director of Tracy Adult School, this week to ascertain the health of the program. He said that though the adult school's 2010-11 budget will be cut 75 percent by Tracy Unified School District, prudent fiscal planning will enable the school to subsist on about $600,000 this year. Without the money saved from 2009-10, the school would be looking at a budget of almost half that.

But, I thought, that savings is only good for one year. So, I asked, what happens to the adult school if its budget isn't increased next year? Pickering's answer:

"We’re doing the best we can with what we have, and we just have to hope for better times ahead. If they’re not, it’s going to be catastrophic to a lot more than just the adult school.”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

State of the City: stimulus update

• Author's note: This is the first in a planned series of blogs about the March 24 State of the City address.

In the 2009 edition of the SOTC, Mayor Brent Ives unveiled the "Tracy Investment Plan" — known around here as the city stimulus.

It was supposed to protect auto buyers, pump up sales tax revenue, bring more people downtown and set up the city so it could be first in line to boom when the recession ended.

While we're still waiting for the end of the recession — and likely will be waiting for quite a while — Ives gave a --year recap during his Wednesday address. (For my 6-month update, click here.)

Cards for Cars
The city's answer to the Cash for Clunkers program, Ives reported that giving a $500 gift card to car buyers for a period last summer kept local car dealerships afloat and brought in thousands of sales tax dollars.

The downside? It was a one-shot deal aimed at a very specific type of business — a good idea, but one that was inherently unfair. And although I say one-shot deal, there's no reason the city couldn't do this again. It would just have a much harder time selling it to a public increasingly wary of government support of industry, even though government spending has so far played a large part in preventing wholesale economic collapse.

Celebrate the bad times
People might be down during the recession, but last year the city made it a point to pour more money into partying — including the Fourth of July and several new events called the Taste of Tracy series.

By all accounts, the events were a hit. While many cities shut down their celebrations — like Stockton saying no to fireworks — Tracy drew folks out by keeping its going, something Ives pointed out Wednesday but that we've known for a while. Taste of Tracy even drew more people into the downtown area and got more people acquainted with some of the city's eateries.

Overall, it was a modest investment. And really, who doesn't like to party?

City-backed small business loans
While most of these programs are floating, this one has so far sunk.

Ives described the program with $1 million in seed money as "still developing." As in, it hasn't done diddly yet.

This isn't to say it won't. Eventually, I expect it to get off the ground and offer a serious opportunity to local entrepreneurs who are either in the market to start or expand a business. It just ain't happenin' now.

Capital improvements
This one didn't get a lot of mention from Ives, but it's been responsible for a lot of road repair work.

This way to bolster the local economy entails some risk. Yes, it keeps people working, gets things done that would have needed to been done anyway, and it's being done with money that can't really be used for anything else.

However, once the capital improvement fund is gone, it'll take developer and utility fees to build it up again — something that is going to take a while given the current economic climate. And until it's built up, there won't be a whole lotta captial improvement work going on.

As City Manager Leon Churchill told me six months ago, there's a risk of the city shooting all its bullets and the recession not being over. But, as I've said before, I've thought the city's approach was better than doing nothing.

Future job creation
This was Ives' biggest point to sell.

The city went ahead and partnered with private entities ($820,000 and $2.3 million, respectively) to get infrastructure together in the West Tracy business area, which when built out will be the largest such area in the county, according to Ives.

Along with the long-awaited Gateway development, which should see building commence this summer according to Ives, the West Tracy area would be primed and ready for developers and industries looking to move in, priming the city to be the top jobs producer when better times roll around.

If that goes according to plan, we'll all sing the city stimulus' praises.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good news for education ... no, really

It's no surprise if you missed the good news buried in the bad at last night's Tracy Unified School District meeting. Because there was a lot of bad.

But verily, good there was. You just had to listen and look carefully.

Buried in the consent items — which typically receive immediate approval with little or no discussion — was an opportunity to open up Tracy Unified to Give Every Child a Chance, the volunteer-driven nonprofit that helps get underachieving grade-schoolers back on the track to academic success, with no cost to parents or schools. (For more on the program that originated in Manteca and took root in the Jefferson School District, read Saturday's column.)

In a wise and anticipated move, the board gave its thumbs-up, and so Jacobson School will soon host our area's third GECAC chapter.

Sure, it doesn't come close to making up for the hellacious list of budget-cut casualties. But in a climate that's almost entirely doom and gloom, we take our success stories where we can find them.

State of the City first reaction

Along with maybe a couple hundred others this morning, I headed to the Grand Theatre for coffee, a croissant and a taste of the city's fortunes.

Mike Locke of the San Joaquin Partnership and Mayor Brent Ives covered a lot of territory during the two hours of talking, but the main topic was mostly economic — what's going on now, and what's in store for the future.

There's a ton in the address, and it'll take a few days to sort through it all and report back. (Which, have no fear, Second Thoughts will do in a State of the City blog series.)

For now, suffice it to say that I left that room feeling optimistic about Tracy's future prospects.

Whether it was a good sales job by Ives or the actual content of the speech, I'm not sure. But despite the in-between-the-lines messages that Tracy is still steered by developer interests, I think that our Hamlet by the Highway has a lot going for it.

What exactly is that (and what are those "messages")? — well, stay tuned. We'll get there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The town's hottest ticket

At least for the next 12 hours, the hottest ticket in Tracy is to the State of the City address, the mayor's annual recap of the year that was and chance to pitch policies for the year ahead.

Entry to the show of political theater costs $15 — which strikes me as more than a tiny bit un-democratic.

But for the bargain price of $10, I'll scalp you a ticket. Just find me at the Grand Theatre right before the speaking starts — I'll be the guy cramming danishes into the pockets of his overcoat.

(Just kidding. Ask me for a freebie — if I still have an extra, you can have it.)

Our auto drama gets NPR treatment

By now, you've probably heard the story of NUMMI, the Fremont auto plant that will close for good on April 1, taking hundreds — possibly thousands — of jobs in San Joaquin County and the rest of the valley with it.

But you've never heard it detailed by This American Life, a public radio program put together under Chicago Public Radio, and one of the finest examples of journalism left in the United States.

This weekend, This American will use its weekly hour (click for preview) to examine the plant's closure and talk about what might have gone differently. Tune in to either 88.5 FM (out of San Francisco) 91.3 FM (out of Stockton) at noon Saturday for the full story.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ready to roll the dice on health care reform

So, it's come down to this.

More than a year after the political bickering began, a massive health care reform package is set for some kind of vote Sunday.

And while the legislation isn't perfect (Note: Understatement of the year award nominee), Second Thoughts is willing to roll the dice. But it's no off-the-cuff endorsement.

Let's start by acknowledging plenty in this bill could not work as planned or cost way, way more than its estimates. Remember, we're talking about the same federal government that thought this was a good idea.

But we also know that health care costs are rising dramatically and — driven by ennumerable factors — will continue to balloon if some type of serious change is not brought to our health care system. (BTW, if you have two hours and want the best expose of health system problems I've heard in 14 months, check out these two audio reports from Chicago Public Radio's "This American Life.")

Now, what we've got floating around the House of Representatives and Senate aren't really the far-reaching overhauls they're made out to be. Both retain the basic structure of our current system — they just tweak it a bit and try to make improvements where politically possible.

But from all I can gather, there's enough that's positive about this legislation — such as eliminating pre-existing conditions as factors for denying insurance, ending the practice of recission and trying to make sure families aren't bankrupted by a year of out-of-control medical costs — to outweigh its numerous flaws.

Basically, it boils down to this:

We're screwed if we don't do something. We're probably screwed if we do do something. This is the first time in ages that we've come this close to fixing some serious flaws with our clearly dysfunctional health care system. And the solutions being offered, while not perfect and probably expensive, could help millions of real people and businesses.

From my current perspective, those odds are good enough to give it a go.

Maybe that's my natural optimism getting the best of me when I should be more cynical. But I hope, at least on that last thought, that I'm wrong.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carnegie still open to off-roaders

According to the Stockton Record, Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area will stay open for the time being, as a lawsuit brought to either close the park to off-roaders or have it "clean up its act" was overruled by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

It's gotta please the gearheads who rallied en masse in defense of the popular park.

And the environmentalists get something out of it, too. Park officials said they will work toward obtaining a permit from an area water board, which could force the park to mitigate some of the pollution there.

Not a bad compromise.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The first GOP 11th District endorsement :Updated:

The Republican race to unseat Rep. Jerry McNerney in Congress is growing clearer.

Out of the race are Robert Beadles of Lodi and Jeff Takada of Manteca.

And today, Takada will become the first GOP primary candidate to endorse a former rival.

According to Frank Aquila, the head of the South County San Joaquin Republicans, Takada will throw his weight behind Elizabeth Emken at 4 p.m. in front of Manteca City Hall.

Aquila told me that Takada, after considering carefully which candidate to endorse following his early exit, thought Emken was going to be the best candidate to tackle McNerney.

Also, Aquila related, Takada thought Emken's stance on water issues — against a peripheral canal and in favor of new water recycling programs — were most closely aligned with his own stance on water, Takada's big issue.

As for Emken's candidacy, the GOP operative says she could mount a serious challenge to McNerney if she gets past her other Republican rivals: "I think she's going to create a lot of problems for McNerney," Aquila said. "She's not a cardboard cutout. She's a real down-to-earth person."

UPDATE/CORRECTION: It appears that Takada isn't the first 11th District challenger to lend support to a former foe. Larry Pegram dropped out of the race all the way back in January and gave his endorsement to David Harmer.

Harmer is still in the race, along with Emken.

Also still vying for the chance to unseat McNerney are Tony Amador and Brad Goehring.

Putting the damper on your St. Paddy's parade

While Second Thoughts is all for knocking back a few and briefly forgetting about what ails us on St. Patrick's Day, this item couldn't pass without comment.

At issue is the "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act." Essentially, it would let federal agencies like the CIA detain pretty much anyone — apparently including U.S. citizens — without criminal charges provided that person is deemed a terrorist suspect. And who gets to make the call as to who is a "high-value terrorist suspect"? Why, members and agencies within Executive Branch, of course.

From Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald:

Meanwhile, the bill recently introduced by Joe Lieberman and John McCain -- the so-called "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act" -- now has 9 co-sponsors, including the newly elected Scott Brown. It's probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act. It literally empowers the President to imprison anyone he wants in his sole discretion by simply decreeing them a Terrorist suspect -- including American citizens arrested on U.S. soil. The bill requires that all such individuals be placed in military custody, and explicitly says that they "may be detained without criminal charges and without trial for the duration of hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners," which everyone expects to last decades, at least. It's basically a bill designed to formally authorize what the Bush administration did to American citizen Jose Padilla -- arrest him on U.S. soil and imprison him for years in military custody with no charges.

This bill seems to be a true danger to the idea that all are innocent until proven guilty. Yet folks are worried this is what's endangering American liberty. *Sigh*

Think about it over your next St. Patrick's Day pint.

Have a pint pulled in Tracy

This being the day many Americans set aside their normal responsibilities to drink themselves silly celebrate the country's Irish heritage, we realize there's a question that rationally follows: Where's the best place in Tracy to have a pint pulled in honor of St. Patrick?

Since the corporate faux pub Firkin & Beaver closed, Tracy's really only got one appropriately themed watering hole for March 17: The Shamrock, located a stone's throw from the Press. It's the one with the upside-down sign hanging over 11th Street (and yes, it's supposed to be that way).

If you're looking for Guinness on tap, however, your best bet is just a quick crawl from The Sham: Helm's Ale House, which has an impressive array of on-tap selections (and none of that thin foreign-owned stuff, either.)

So find a driver, put on your drinking shoes and raise a glass! Responsibly, of course. We don't want to see you in the daily Police Log.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Whence the water bond money?

On the November ballot will be a bond for several billion dollars to, among other things, ship water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in order to protect that water for those in Southern California and the Central Valley.

But according to the reasearch compiled by the Stockton Record's Alex Breitler, the Legislative Analyst's Office in Sacramento is questioning how the Department of Water Resources is spending bonds that have already been approved.

This is not in itself a reason to vote 'No' on the upcoming bond initiative. It's just one more thing to think about.

Up in smoke

Remember this conversation, started by the Marc Shishido fiasco and the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in Stockton?

Well, we know how at least one of those sagas turned out. The Stockton City Council put the kibbosh on the city's dispensary, revoking its business license because it did not specifically list "marijuana sales" as part of its application. (However, Second Thoughts understands that the somewhat euphemistic "herbal remedies" was part of the license.)

What does that mean for Tracy and dispensaries?

It could make Tracy seem like a better place to open a legal pot shop, since there wouldn't be any close-by, in-county competition. It could also help set a local precedent, making leaders here less likely to take the first foray into welcoming such operations with open arms.

For now, the status quo remains, and patients will have to get their Purple Kush on the down-low, instead of on the up-and-up.

Other news about 'Tracy'

I receive e-mail alerts when news stories about "Tracy" hit the wires. As you might expect, this means I often get tidbits that aren't about Tank Town.

My favorite of today's "Hey, that's not my Tracy" alerts:

Adding insult to injury, Tracy Weiler was fined $681 after an Asiatic black bear bit off her fingers in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The reason for the fine? Weiler, who had a blood-alcohol content of .16, crossed safety barriers in an attempt to feed the bear.

Apparently, it's not only dumb to drunkenly feed zoo animals. It's also illegal.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The solution to our speeding problems?

Folks on the western end of Valpico Road have complained about speeders treating their residential road like rural raceway.

Today, folks near the eastern end had their own objections to speeders, with at least one local resident giving police an earful after this rollover hit-and-run, which happened after the rolled-over truck ran a red light and the other driver sped away (but not before leaving behind his license plate).

And the speeding issue has surfaced elsewhere in Tracy.

Luckily, I think the guy in this video has found the answer...

Local economy, DOA?

Jeffery Michaels of the University of the Pacific's Business Forecasting Center had this to say about the state of the local economy in a recent newspaper article:

"There are no early signs of growth in here at all. It looks like a dead job market."

This in connection with a report that the county's unemployment rate topped out at 18.4 percent in January — comapred with a statewide mark of 13.2 percent and a nationwide mark of 10.6 percent.

Yes, that's bad — very, very, very bad — but a bit of context:

This region's economy has always been a cyclical affair, and due to its still largely agrarian nature, the San Joaquin Valley has always boasted higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state. Especially in winter. The area's relatively low level of education and its reliance on lower-income spectrum jobs doesn't help, either.

This isn't to say we should accept this level of unemployement or underdevelopment, but it helps to know why our numbers are so bad in comparison to others.

Oh, one final bad-news note. The hundreds of local jobs expected to be lost by the NUMMI closure haven't been factored into the numbers yet. So the statistics are only going to get worse before they get better.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The quote of the day

Superintendent Jim Franco, describing the personally painful nature of ripping away $12.9 million from the school district's budget:

“We’ve worked hard as a district to create the very programs we’re now dismantling to make sure our budget is balanced.”

To find out what he's talking about, see Cassie Tomlin's story in Wednesday's Tracy Press for an up-close look at just one of the many effective programs falling casualty to the state's budget crisis.

McNerney stakes position for 11th District race

Rep. Jerry McNerney's office this week released a statement that tells you all you need to know about how the congressman is going to defend his 11th District seat against a group of eager Republican challengers. He's depending on moderation.

The statement sent out to the Press and other news outfits touts a "National Review" rating of Congress that, according to McNerney communications director Sarah Hersh, as "as the most moderate of California’s House members." (I tried to verify the rating myself, but couldn't access the subscribers-only portion of the NR Web site.)

Regardless of what that rating actually means in terms of ideology and policy — and there are plenty of ways these ratings are a poor indicator of ideological affiliation — the media release shows that McNerney is staking his position as a "centrist" candidate, which is a smart move considering his congressional district is about as evenly split between registered Democrat and Republican voters as you can get.

This could have serious implications in the November election. Right now, the GOP challengers are painting themselves as the best conservative for the job, while trying to tar-and-feather McNerney as a Nancy Pelosi-following liberal. McNerney, I'll wager, will try to turn this against whatever Republican emerges from the June 8 primary by slamming that person as a wingnut who's too far to the right to represent a district so ideologically balanced.

But when the race and rhetoric heat up, remember that things like "liberal," "conservative" and "moderate" are just hype.

What really matters is voting record; plans and actions for boosting communities within the 11th District; and a consistent, coherent ideology regarding the role of government.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bright spots exist despite school struggles

The basic storyline about local schools is doom and gloom. Check out the top story of the Saturday Tracy Press for our most recent example.

It's not that news folks enjoy dwelling on the negative, this is a big story that should have profound effects on not just the present-day jobs of hundreds in our community, but also on the future of our state.

Still, the bright spots exist. If you know where to find them.

I found plenty early Wednesday morning in the West High School library, as eager juniors lined up — resumes and cover letters in hand — to be interviewed by yours truly and several other volunteers who hoped to give the students a small taste of the Dreaded Job Search.

Some were shy. Others were nervous. All were really, really bright. (And one I was tempted to offer a letter of intent to work at the Press on the spot.)

These kids wanted to learn something Wednesday, and I hope they did. But I got a lesson out of it, too.

While many of us haggle over budgets and Big Numbers, there are still volunteers, parents and teachers trying to go the extra mile for students to make sure they've got the best possible shot at success. And there are still students working hard each and every day to prepare themselves for the future.

So yeah, it's pretty dark out there sometimes. But there's also plenty of hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The daily irony watch

Churches are mostly thought of as places where the oppressed — the down-on-their luck, the in-need-of-a-friend, the "least of my bretheren" — can come for a helping hand.

So when City Editor Eric Firpo spotted this item in the daily Police Log, it struck a chord:

8:24 a.m.: A caller from the Heartland Church, 1391 W. 11th St., reported a homeless man was asleep against the front glass window between a dental office and a nearby market. The caller said it was an ongoing problem.

We don't know the precise circumstances about this incident, but if the blotter entry is any indication, there wasn't any room to be found at the inn.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nipped in the bud

We know that a legal pot shop in Tracy is already a long shot. On Tuesday, San Joaquin County's supervisors took a step toward making it equally hard for a dispensary to set up outside city limits.

The temporary ordinance banning dispensaries is just a stop-gap until a more permanent law can be written, according to this Lodi News Sentinel report. However, it sure seems like this could make it much easier for the county to simply wash its hands clean of the whole medical marijuana issue by banning dispensaries outright.

Which is, of course, the county leadership's perogative. Not that it makes any sense whatsoever.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Adding insult to injury?

The City Council’s decision to charge a fee for fire-department administered life support is old news, and there’s not much that can be done about it. That doesn’t mean people are finished talking about it.

To put it bluntly, people are pissed. Many local residents see paying an extra $300 for medical aid when taxes theoretically already pay for these services as literally adding insult to injury.

On the other hand, it costs a lot of money for firefighters to administer these services, often before ambulance crews arrive on the scene of an accident. And sometimes there comes a point where an individual, a business or a government must choose to either provide less or charge more.

City officials said it came down to this — risk losing those life-saving services or increase their cost.

The city decided to side with citizens’ safety. And in a nod to money-tight times, the city also thought it better to charge the people who use the service instead of approving an across-the-board tax increase. Which, by some theories of government, is more justified.

(Also, the city probably couldn't have gotten away with a tax increase that would have affected the entire Tracy population. Sticking the bill to the estimated 2,000 or so people who receive life-support services from the fire department was a much easier political proposition.)

Problem is, this fee is not earmarked to pay specifically for paramedic services. Money collected form the fee will be directed to the general fund, where it can be spent on a wide range of projects.

Such flexibility, while practical, belies much of the rhetoric supporting the fee’s approval. The city manager told me months ago that there's an "ethical understanding" that the money collected will protect paramedic services. But the lack of an in-writing guarantee makes it easy to imagine that the "maintain medical services" plea is just window dressing.

I understand the logic behind the city’s plan. Little is easy in the current economic climate, and leaders at all levels must make difficult — and unpopular — decisions to fix out-of-balance budgets. Instituting the fee was one of those tough calls faced by the city.

Moreover, it’s a moot point. The decision was made months ago.

Still, we can insist on at least one thing — that the fee be repealed when the city’s budget no longer bleeds red ink. If it isn’t, we’ll know that charging patients for paramedic care really was just a way to pick taxpayers’ pockets.

Rail project would bring big-time change

If you want to be a big town, get ready for big projects.

That was part of the message Stacey Mortensen seemed to send at Tuesday's City Council meeting. The salvo — and hint that Tracy might be biting off more than it can chew — came during a discussion about where to locate a possible stop on a rail spur that would link the Central Valley and Bay Area arms of a statewide high-speed rail project.

Even though the regional rail commission director said that the high-speed project requires a bigger project than anything the downtown has ever seen — read: your cute little Tracy Transit Station just ain't going to cut it — the City Council wasn't dissuaded, throwing its support behind the idea that downtown is the spot to welcome passenger trains to Tracy.

But as great as having commuter/passenger trains in downtown Tracy would be, serious impacts could arise from a project that would have a scope that many of us might have underestimated. Including, if the infrastructure needed is as huge as Mortensen predicts, what kind of change in town can we expect?

Because it seems certain, at least, that if high-speed rail comes to Tracy, Tank Town will never be the same.