Friday, April 29, 2011

Associated Press: Approval Near for Bill funding Counties New Jails

Bill would boost county money for state prisoners

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2011 15:37 PDT
The Associated Press

© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

California counties are one signature away from easier access to jail financing as they prepare to house up to 40,000 inmates who will be transferred from state prisons.

By passing an amendment to a budget bill Thursday, the state Assembly allowed counties to put up just 10 percent of a jail's overall cost, rather than the current 25 percent. The Senate already approved the revision to AB94, which goes to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown for signing.

The money is part of $1.2 billion in jail financing the Legislature approved in 2007. It would help build new county jail beds as the governor seeks to shift several state responsibilities to counties, including oversight of some lower-level convicts and parolees.

Supporters say counties need more money to handle so many new inmates but are struggling to come up with the matching money as their economic fortunes have fallen amid the recession.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Sherman Oaks, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, called the legislation a technical clean-up bill.

About half the funding from the 2007 bill, AB900, has been awarded to 11 counties that agreed to match a quarter of the cost. Those counties cannot reapply for the 10 percent rate if they have spent any of the money.

"This is also a simple issue of equity and changing rules during the middle of the game," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills.

He was one of 14 lawmakers to vote against the amendment, while 48 others approved it.

SJ Mercury News: San Jose Mayor Attacks Public Safety Disability Abuse

Mayor calls for ballot measure to stem abuses in cops', firefighters' disability claims

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen called Thursday for a ballot measure to rein in disability retirement abuses highlighted in a recent city audit and 2006 Mercury News investigation.

The measure would amend the city charter to clarify that disability retirement is intended only for those whose injuries prevent them from working.

"It is evident from the city auditor's report that the disability retirement system is broken and is in dire need of reform," Reed and Nguyen wrote in a memorandum to the City Council. They also called for forming an independent committee to review and decide on disability retirement applications.

The City Council will consider the proposal to prepare ballot language Tuesday when it reviews the disability audit.

Robert Sapien, president of the San Jose firefighters union, called the proposed ballot measure a misfire that fails to target the real problem of a broken workers' compensation program. He called it "a final insult to injured firefighters when they can no longer serve the citizens of San Jose."

"Ready, shoot, aim is the apparent form of government we are under," Sapien said.

Disability pensions are approved by the trustees of San Jose's two pension systems, one for police and firefighters and the other for the rest of the city workforce. Those council-appointed boards include current and retired city employees, but recently were reconstituted to replace City Council members and administrators with independent financial experts.

The city audit and Mercury News investigation found that San Jose police and firefighters retire on disability at unusually high rates not seen among other large cities. Most of those receiving disability pensions were already old enough to qualify for a regular service retirement and in many cases continued working until it was granted.

The audit found that two-thirds of San Jose firefighters and a third of city police officers were retiring on disability, rates that dwarfed those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno. There's a big financial incentive to seek a disability pension: It's tax-free for those not eligible to retire, and mostly tax-free for those who are. The audit found that the tax break is worth more than $16,000 for a hypothetical officer or firefighter.

The audit noted that current rules make it easy to qualify for disability retirement. Applicants need only show that the city doesn't have a job in the same classification that can accommodate their injuries. Many continue working in other jobs, though the disability pension is limited for those who haven't reached retirement eligibility.

Nguyen said the changes would prevent "double-dipping" abuses in which employees retire on disability after full careers and then take other jobs. For those not eligible to retire who continuing working other jobs, disability pensions are capped to prevent total earnings from topping the employee's former salary. That cap is lifted once the employee reaches retirement eligibility.

Councilman Pete Constant, who retired on disability from the police force after 11 years, said the real abuses weren't younger officers like himself who suffered career-ending injuries but veterans squeezing the system for tax breaks.

"They didn't find abuses from people who left early," Constant said. "It's the people who worked a full 30 years and getting disability retirement on the way out the door to get a tax advantage. We have to root out abuse of the system."

Sacramento Bee: Proposed City Budget Has Deep Police and Fire Cuts

Sacramento budget proposes deep cuts for police, fire departments

Published: Friday, Apr. 29, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.
This is the budget Sacramento City Hall has been dreading.

Roughly 80 police officers stand to lose their jobs under a budget plan to be released today, part of a proposal from the interim city manager that would cut $32 million in spending across city departments.

The cutbacks proposed for the Police Department, which currently employs 700 uniformed officers, would spare little beyond patrol officers. The proposal calls for eliminating the gang, narcotics, auto-theft and Problem Oriented Policing (POP) units; police presence in city schools would be cut by 25 percent.

Under the proposal, six Fire Department rigs would be out of service at any given time on rotating brownouts, up from two currently. And of the city's 15 community centers, all but three – South Natomas, Coloma and Pannell – would close.

Like cities around the state, Sacramento continues to feel the effects of declining sales and property tax revenues, as well as rising costs for employee benefits and salaries.

Interim City Manager Bill Edgar, who took the helm three weeks ago after the previous interim city manager quit, said the city could no longer address its problems by drawing on reserves and one-time fixes. The city's financial reserves, he noted, are down to $14 million, enough to cover a single two-week payroll period.

"We've got to make the cuts, and we've got to make them now," Edgar said. "We need to break down this organization and rebuild it."

Since 2007, Sacramento has trimmed $92.5 million from its general fund budget, or about one-fifth its bankroll. Many of the cuts have fallen on the parks department and other services that don't involve public safety.

And the cycle isn't projected to end this year: City officials put the cumulative deficit over the next five years at an estimated $62 million.

As in years past, city officials will seek concessions from labor unions to lessen the severity of layoffs and service cuts. Letters have been sent to union leaders, but most of the bargaining groups' contracts are not set to expire until next year.

Some union leaders have expressed reluctance to reopen their contracts before July, the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year. Many say they don't know Edgar and were upset that former Interim City Manager Gus Vina was not given the job permanently.

In any case, Edgar said Thursday, the city is not interested in getting by with one-year concessions from workers. Instead, officials hope to persuade the unions to agree to long-term givebacks, including increased employee contributions toward pensions and health care.

"One-year concessions put us right back in the same situation," said Councilman Jay Schenirer. "We have a multi-year problem here."

The proposal is the first in years to call for significant staffing cuts to the Police Department. Sacramento Police Officers Association President Brent Meyer said his union is not willing at this point to discuss salary concessions.

"I'm wondering how come the city is not able to meet their obligation with the contract they signed with us," he said, referring to the agreement signed in 2009 that saved the city $6.4 million. "At this point, we're going to go through the budget hearings and make our case about why cuts to the Police Department are unacceptable and why they should not occur."

In signing the contract, which expires in June 2013, the SPOA agreed to forgo a 5 percent pay increase in exchange for a one-year protection from layoffs.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who had strong support from the public safety unions in her election last June, said "I think losing nearly 100 officers is more than we can afford to lose."

"I want (SPOA) to come to the table, and I want them to have a conversation about the severity of the situation," she said. "We've got to find some middle ground in a very, very difficult set of circumstances."

The police positions slated to be cut include 35 that were funded with federal grants. The three-year grants were provided with the stipulation that the city would lose the funding if any of the officers were laid off.

If the cuts come to fruition, spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong said, the department would seek a waiver allowing it to keep the funding.

The budget also proposes cutting 69 positions from the ranks of unsworn employees, including dispatchers, crime scene investigators, community service officers and administrators.

Leong said the cuts would be "drastic," shrinking employee ranks to pre-1997 levels. "The Police Department wouldn't look the same," he said.

Fire Department service cuts are also being proposed, although it is unlikely that many – if any – firefighters would lose their jobs. In addition to the brownouts, the city is proposing reducing the staffing on two fire rigs from four firefighters to three.

Jaymes Butler, head of the firefighters union, said the union would take the city to court, as it has in the past, if that proposal passes.

Butler said Local 522 is willing to discuss concessions, but only if the city is transparent.

"If they want us to come to the table, we need full disclosure," he said. "We need to see the books."

LA Times: Bill to Dissolve City of Vernon Advances

Bill to dissolve Vernon overwhelmingly approved by state Assembly

Vernon's councilmen

The state Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would dissolve the city of Vernon.
The bill, which is the first known attempt by legislature to disincorporate a charter city, was passed on a vote of 60 to 7.

The legislation was authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), who described a “pattern of unprecedented corruption” in Vernon, a city of fewer than 100 residents. He vowed that his bill would create a more open government in the 5.2-square-mile industrial enclave and protect the 1,800 businesses located there.

“Members, we have an absolute obligation to make sure that we have transparent and accountable government at every level in the state of California,” he said.

Thursday’s debate also marked the first opposition to the bill from other legislators. Those urging a “no” vote included Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) and Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield). The three said they feared Perez’s bill would cause a loss in jobs.

We cannot afford to continue an assault on private business,” Grove said, adding that she wanted Perez to consider other methods of addressing problems in Vernon’s government.

In response, Perez again promised to add amendments to the bill to preserve the city’s utility rates and zoning. Vernon operates a municipal power business and has throughout its history accommodated heavy industry and manufacturing. A coalition of local business and labor groups have also opposed the bill, saying it would damage Vernon’s unique business climate.

But Perez also called the jobs argument a “scare-tactic” being used by the city and its team of lawyers and lobbyists in its attempts to derail the bill. His supporters echoed that claim.

“This bill is about attacking political corruption, and I think we all should be standing on that side,” said Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim). “Who’s to say that if we change the political environment, businesses won’t do better?”

Other representatives argued that Vernon’s municipal government should be eliminated because the city lacks an independent electorate. Most of its voters live in city-owned housing, they said, which prevents them from challenging city officials.

“We have the opportunity to make a statement to the people of California that corruption will not be tolerated,” said Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita), the bill’s principal co-author.

The bill now moves to the state senate. It could be voted into law as early as September.

Bee Columnist Dan Walters: Governor Kills Death-Row Boondoggle

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown kills death-row boondoggle

Published: Friday, Apr. 29, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
California pretends to have a death penalty for murder and other heinous crimes. That is, judges and juries sentence violent felons to die in San Quentin State Prison's execution chamber.

But that is just a pretense because, in fact, almost no one is ever executed.

Instead, supposedly about 700 condemned inmates reside for years, even decades, on what's called "death row." They're in greater danger of dying of old age – or boredom – than in taking the long walk.
The state can't even obtain an adequate supply of the legal chemicals it would need to administer lethal injections.

Given that reality, it made absolutely no sense for the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new death row complex at San Quentin. The proposed project was not only too large – with space for more than 1,100 inmates – but its chief effect would have been to make condemned felons' lives less stressful.

The death row boondoggle is just one of the many ways in which California has spent far more money on prisoners than it should.

A reasonable examination of the data from other states indicates that at about $10 billion a year, we're spending around twice as much on prisons as we should be.

Gov. Jerry Brown has negotiated a new contract with the prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, that is probably more generous than it should be. On Thursday, however, he canceled the death row project at San Quentin, which is a step in the right direction.

"At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state," Brown said.

"California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates. It would be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us."

His comment about prioritizing spending is absolutely correct. For too long, voters and politicians have assumed that we can have it all, regardless of cost, even if it requires borrowing more money to pay for it.
Brown has talked about reversing that ethos and, instead, matching income with outgo, whether it takes cutting spending or raising taxes. Canceling the death row project is a step in that direction.

There will be those who say Brown canceled the project because he's opposed to capital punishment, as demonstrated by his veto of capital punishment legislation during his first stint as governor.

That may have been a factor, but it doesn't matter.

It's the right thing to do on its merits. One can only hope that he sticks to that policy as he deals with the rest of the state's chronic budget gap.

Statewide PPIC Poll: Californians and Education

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California has released a new statewide survey about Californians and Education.

The full Survey is here:

PPIC Survey

The survey includes interesting questions and issues regarding education funding, perceptions of what is happening in classrooms and how to pay for changes... 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

San Jose Mercury News: City Police Layoff Notices

106 San Jose cops get layoff notices

The San Jose Mercury News

After months of nervous anticipation, 106 San Jose police officers are getting notices this week that they may be laid off as the reality of the city's dire financial picture cast a gloom over police headquarters and City Hall.

An additional 20 more cops learned they may soon be demoted. And overall, the city could lose about 9 percent of its police force in what could be the first layoffs of officers in the city's history.

City officials have been threatening layoffs for months, and City Manager Deb Figone last week broadcast a total of more than 600 city employees. But that doesn't make the layoff-warning letters any easier to accept.

"I was sold a bill of goods and the city did not hold up their end of the bargain," said J.P. Bottega, a former New York City cop who was recruited by the San Jose Police Department three years ago. "They asked me to make a lot of sacrifices. They asked me to go all in with this city. And I did."

Bottega blames Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council, which, he said, "doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to make the tough decisions" to protect the city's public safety.

"I pay my mortgage first before I go out to dinner," he said. "Public safety is the mortgage of the city's future."

Budget woes

But Reed and other city officials say they have little choice. San Jose, they note, is in its 10th straight year of budget deficits, largely driven by employee costs outpacing revenues. Officials say half of this year's deficit is driven by soaring employee pension costs, and have asked employees to agree to reduced retirement benefits.

Police Chief Chris Moore has been holding small group meetings in a conference room to notify the officers whose jobs are in peril.

"It's hard to be the chief at a time when we are laying off officers for the first time ever," Moore said. "Our best, brightest and youngest are being forced out of their jobs."

This week Officer Bottega and most members of Team 65, a respected unit that patrols the East Side all night long, will personally be handed letters by Moore warning them that their jobs could end in late June.

On Monday, Figone laid out the bad news contained in a proposed budget she plans to release May 2. That news is the elimination of about 620 positions, about a 10th of the workforce, to close a $115 million deficit.

About 230 other employees are expected to be "bumped" by more senior colleagues into lesser jobs.

And it could get even bloodier.

The estimate of 600-plus jobs targeted for elimination assumes 10 percent pay and benefit concessions from all 11 of the city's employee unions, which would shave $38 million off the deficit. But so far, only firefighters and three civilian employee unions have agreed.

If the city doesn't secure similar concessions from the rest of the workforce, Figone said, an additional 155 cops and 300 other workers will be cut. The council can vote to impose pay cuts for a year on the civilian workforce but not on cops.

The only member of Bottega's six-member team who is not slated to lose his job is Sgt. Dave Woolsey. But he is scheduled to be demoted.

Bottega had been an officer in New York City for years when he saw a recruiting billboard on Manhattan's West Side Highway that spoke of the SJPD's superior professionalism and good salaries. He spoke with his wife, who was from California, and a San Jose police recruiter, Lt. George Beattie.

He liked the idea of lots of trees and working for a department that had an excellent national reputation. So he and his wife sold their house on Long Island in 2008, taking a beating on it, and headed west.

Changing course again

Now, with his wife in graduate school, Bottega looks at his house in Santa Cruz with the chickens and the black lab and figures it, like his job, will soon be gone. At 37, the veteran officer can't realistically go back to NYPD. He gets depressed thinking of how hard he will have to compete against the flood of other cops who are being dumped on the job market.

Even so, Bottega said he is not so cynical and depressed that he has become an empty shirt.

Last month, he pulled over a van with expired plates that seemed to be driving erratically.
Bottega had a moment in which he asked himself if it was worth it. But he knew it was.

The first thing he noticed on the floor of the van was a machete, then a Taser, then they found guns and a homemade explosive. He made the arrest and later received a letter of commendation signed by Chief Moore.

"I've lived an upstanding life to become a police officer. I'm happily married, looking to start a family. In that respect its disappointing. But you can't get upset about things you cannot change. I have to look forward."
That was the inspirational message of Woolsey, who says he came to San Jose from Hollywood hoping to make a difference.

A few months ago Woolsey noticed his patrol team's morale flagging as the rumors of layoffs swirled around the department. Years before, Woolsey had felt depressed about his own police career back in the days of the scandal-plagued LAPD.

So now he grabbed his officers after briefings and in parking lots and told them to keep their heads up.
"If you dwell on things you have no control over, you can get cynical and depressed. It affects every aspect of your life," he told them. "Remember the reasons you became a police officer and hold tight to those beliefs."

He said that to his delight, his officers responded.
"They do this job for a reason," said Woolsey, 40. "Despite morale problems they still want to do the right thing."

Now Woolsey is trying to remind himself why he spent so many Sundays at the library away from his wife and two young children studying to get his sergeant stripes. He and about 19 others may lose them in July.

He knows the pain of Bottega, the rest of his patrol team and other people in other industries in Silicon Valley who are losing their jobs.

But it still hurts.

"I really felt like I've hit that point where it is time for me to lead others and have a positive impact on people I work for and the community I work with," he said. "So this is a morale breaker."

Meanwhile, the union has been compiling a list of the officers who have over the past 16 months left the budget-beleaguered department for such agencies as the Round Rock (Texas) Police Department, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office and the Palo Alto Police Department. The union estimates the city has lost about $2.45 million in training costs.

Jim Unland, the vice president of the officers' union, said the mood at the police department is somber.

"Some of our best people are affected by this," he said. "I fear that once we lose them, we will never get them back."

OC Register: Orange County Special District Salaries, OC Cemetery Highest

OC has highest-paid public cemetery exec in state

April 27th, 2011, 3:00 am ·  posted by Teri Sforza, Register staff writer

The Orange County Register
The good state of California has 249 public cemetery districts – selling plots, burying the dead, keeping historic graveyards lovely – and the man who runs Orange County’s cemetery district is the most well-compensated in the state, according to data released by the state controller Tuesday.
Orange County Cemetery District General Manager Tim Deutsch’s pay, subject to Medicare taxes by Uncle Sam, was  $121,286 in 2009, landing him at the top of the heap. Here are the Top 10, according to Controller John Chiang:
  1. Orange County Cemetery District Medicare total wages $121,286
  2. Elk Grove-Cosumnes Cemetery District $95,924
  3. Saratoga Cemetery District $92,471
  4. Suisun-Fairfield-Rockville Cemetery District $85,214
  5. Newcastle-Rocklin-Gold Hill Cemetery District $83,935
  6. Alamo-Lafayette Cemetery District $83,783
  7. Goleta Cemetery District $83,648
  8. Palm Springs Cemetery District $80,465
  9. Roseville Cemetery District $80,395
  10. Sylvan Cemetery District $80,304
The controller began rounding up numbers for cities, counties and special districts after the Bell fiasco (congrats on the Pulitzer, LAT!), but his numbers aren’t perfect (i.e., they don’t include everything that we like to include when calculating total compensation).

Throw in what the district kicks in for Deutsch’s health benefits and pension plan, and that figure reaches $139,857; throw in his auto allowance, life insurance and the other trappings of public executive life, and that figure reaches $173,377 in total comp, as we reported to you at Halloween in A job to die for.

Deutch points out that Orange County’s cemetery district is one of California’s largest, if not the largest, cemetery district, based on budget, number of interments and lot sales, number of employees (27) and number of cemeteries (3). Most every other district manages only one cemetery.

In 2004-05, the Orange County Grand Jury delved into the machinations of the cemetery district and concluded that  it was generally well-run, though it didn’t dig much into compensation issues. “The jury found the Orange County cemeteries are operating well within their mission statement,” the report said. “The jury’s overall assessment of the district is that the public is being well served. The grand jury was pleased to observe that the district’s employees strive to ensure the cemeteries are well maintained and are an environment of respect to the memories of those interred.”

What, exactly, is the Orange County Cemetery District?

“The Orange County Cemetery District is an independent special district governed by an appointed Board of Trustees who serve four-year terms,” the district’s web site says. “The three cemeteries owned and operated by the district are among the county’s oldest and most established, with each having recorded burials before 1900.

“Although privately owned in the beginning, the cemeteries were formed into separate independent districts in 1926. In 1985 the districts were consolidated under one governing board to create the Orange County Cemetery District.

“Our boundaries encompass the entire county of Orange and include cemetery locations in Anaheim, Lake Forest and Santa Ana.

“Orange County residents may purchase burial rights from an authorized representative of the District at the business office located on the cemetery grounds. In the past year, over 900 spaces were sold and more than 900 burial services performed.”

Its mission: “To manage and maintain Orange County’s public cemeteries in a manner that preserves their beauty, dignity, historical and cultural values, and offers affordable interment services for county residents.”
The trustees are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. They earn $100 per meeting (maximum of four meetings per month) and get no benefits.

LA Times: City of LA Plan Would Cut Fire and Ambulance Services

Southern California -- this just in

L.A. plan would cut 18 fire companies, four ambulances

Firefighters take part in a drill in Century City.
A proposal to cut 18 fire companies and four ambulances from the Los Angeles Fire Department is to be considered Wednesday by a City Council committee amid opposition from leaders of the firefighters union.

The proposed cuts are contained in the $6.9-billion budget unveiled last week by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The cuts would save the city more than $53 million in the next fiscal year, and nearly $200 million over three years, according to Los Angeles Fire Chief Millage Peaks. They would also put an end to rotating staff reductions.

Every day, the Fire Department temporarily closes 22 fire companies and six ambulance teams in order to save money, Peaks said. The firefighters from the closed companies fill in for staff at other companies who are sick or on vacation, which cuts down on overtime.

The moves were instituted in 2009 after the department was dealt a $39-million budget reduction. They were meant as a "stop-gap," Peaks said, and not as a permanent solution.

He called the temporary closures "very disruptive." The department proposed the permanent closure of 18 fire companies and four ambulances at stations across the city in order to eliminate the temporary shutdowns and create "long-term structural change," according to a report sent to the mayor that details the redeployment of department resources.

Millage said the department determined which companies should go with the help of a computer program that measured which companies were most in demand. Under the proposal, no firefighters would be laid off, but firefighters from several threatened companies have protested the proposed closures.

At a news conference Tuesday at Fire Station 38 in Wilmington, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said she would fight the proposed cuts. The station would lose a hook-and-ladder truck and a pumper truck under the proposed reductions.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hahn is to be joined by firefighters and leaders from United Firefighters of Los Angeles City at a news conference at City Hall, shortly before the council's Budget and Finance Committee takes up the mayor's budget.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sacramento Bee: Powerful LA Groups Oppose City of Vernon Dissolution

Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

Two powerful Los Angeles groups are turning thumbs down on legislation to dissolve the tiny city of Vernon that is being pushed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and is co-authored by nearly 100 of the state's 120 legislators.

The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce is announcing its opposition to Assembly Bill 46 today, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is opposed to the measure unless it can be amended to preserve existing union jobs in Vernon.

"There is great anxiety about the long-term viability of (businesses) if Vernon if disincorporated and becomes a part of unincorporated Los Angeles County or is annexed by an adjacent city," the chamber wrote to Pérez.

Major changes proposed by the Vernon business community should be given a chance to transform the city's governance before disincorporation is considered, the chamber's letter said.

AB 46 cleared its first legislature hurdle without a no vote this month, passing the Assembly Local Government Committee, 8-0.

Pérez, in targeting Vernon, contends that the city is riddled with corruption and that its leaders have created a perpetual ruling class because the city owns and controls who lives in many of the several dozen housing units within its 5 square miles.

Vernon sparked headlines last year for the indictment of former city manager Donal O'Callaghan on conflict of interest charges, and for a probe by the attorney general's office into issues that included massive pay for the city's leaders in years past.

Only about 100 people live in Vernon, but more than 50,000 work in the unusual city, which was designed as an industrial hub and incorporated in 1905.

Sacramento Bee: Westfield Downtown Plaza Said to Be For Sale

Plaza up for sale; many dream of a turnaround

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 26, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Sacramento's long-struggling Downtown Plaza shopping center is on the sales block.
That's according to the Wall Street Journal, which reports that Westfield Group of Australia has begun seeking buyers for the Sacramento mall and 16 other underperforming centers in seven states.

Westfield's goal: Take advantage of an uptick in the economy to sell the properties, then use the proceeds to reinvest in more successful centers, such as its Galleria mall in Roseville.

Westfield officials had no comment. Neither did Evercore Partners, a New York-based advisory firm that's been hired to market the mall portfolio.

The news comes almost two years after city officials asked Westfield to find a buyer if it wasn't going to make long-discussed improvements. Westfield officials said then they'd sell "under certain circumstances."
They may be more motivated now.

Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said Monday that the city "clearly is interested in seeing reinvestment in the center and if through a purchase that could happen we'd be very supportive."

Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said he was hopeful a sale could lead to new investment in the center.

That's all the more important now, he said, when signs of life are emerging elsewhere in the downtown core. The mall "can't (be allowed to) deteriorate to the point where it becomes a distraction to the opportunities around it," he said.

He cited in particular efforts to bring retail and residential development to the 700 and 800 blocks of K Street, just east of the mall.

A final development agreement for those blocks is set to go to the City Council in June following productive talks with two development teams, said Maurice Chaney, a spokesman with the city's Economic Development Department.

Garrick Brown, regional research director for real estate brokerage Cassidy Turley BT Commercial, said numerous private investors would be interested in the mall if Westfield is a motivated seller.

"If they can get it for dimes on the dollar," he said of prospective buyers, they might have the capital needed to make the renovations Westfield has long considered but been unable to complete.

Any turnaround strategy, he added, would include making "some incredible deals" to lure top retailers back to the mall.

Brown said he sees potential in the 39-year-old mall.

"If (an owner) can hold on for three or four years, I think we'll see a big spike in downtown housing and a lot of other development," he said. Under those circumstances, "the fortunes of the center could change very quickly."

Sacramento Press: City Moving Forward to Re-open K Street to Autos

Cars on K project drives forward

by Kathleen Haley, published on April 20, 2011 at 6:07 PM

The Sacramento Press

City staffers are moving forward on the project to bring cars to K Street, saying Wednesday that the street will see its final days as a pedestrian mall in the fall.

Nader Kamal, a senior projects manager for the city, said the street may be ready for cars by November. People will be able to drive between Eighth and 12th streets once the project is complete.

Cars have been barred from K Street since the 1960s, when the city turned it into a pedestrian mall.
“It seemed to be the trend at that time,” city Transportation Department spokeswoman Linda Tucker said, referring to pedestrian malls.

Thursday, the Law and Legislation Committee — composed of four City Council members – will examine updates to an ordinance on pedestrian malls. The ordinance updates, which would allow cars on K Street, are technical changes. The updates will need to be approved later by the full City Council. The City Council decided last year to dedicate $2.7 million to prepare K Street for cars.

Kamal said construction on K is scheduled to begin in July. The construction work will include installing a new traffic signal at 11th and K streets, changing the existing traffic signals on the street and putting in stripes for two-way lanes.

City officials and the downtown business community have said that cars on K will help attract customers to shops on that street.

The increased traffic from cars “will create just a little more visibility on K Street,” said Denise Malvetti, a senior project manager for the city.

Vehicles will also make people feel safer on K Street because the cars will bring activity to the street, she said.

But Sacramento resident Linda Moss, 63, had a different view of cars on that street. “It’s pollution,” she said, while walking from K Street to a bus stop Wednesday.

Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sacramento Bee: City of Elk Grove's New Tree Ordinance

Elk Grove's new tree ordinance takes root

Published: Monday, Apr. 25, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Elk Grove has branched out from its county roots by adopting a new tree ordinance that will nurture the city's urban forest while giving homeowners and developers plenty of options.

When Elk Grove incorporated in 2000, the city inherited Sacramento County's tree ordinance, which was vague, said Christopher Jordan, the city's planning manager.

After three years of public wrangling, the City Council unanimously voted for the revised tree ordinance in February, and the city started implementing the rules this month.

The ordinance adds more local species to the list of protected trees, provides a landmark tree designation to protect trees of interest, and offers more alternatives to mitigating the loss of trees.

Cindy Blain, operations director for the Sacramento Tree Foundation, said Elk Grove's rules are innovative in some key areas, including giving credits for protection of smaller trees.

"Typically, when someone takes out a tree 6 inches or more in diameter, they have to replace them or pay a fee," Blain said. "But with this ordinance, the city gives credit for preserving smaller trees of certain species. Since the trees already exist on the site, it makes the likelihood of their surviving much better."

Blain also lauded the city for discouraging efforts to relocate trees, especially larger oaks, as a mitigation measure. Often, she said, relocating a tree means "slow death."

Elk Grove's ordinance makes that a last resort, and requires monitoring of relocated trees for up to 10 years.
Moving some trees is impractical, Blain said: "Native oaks are kind of cranky. As they get older, they don't like to be disturbed or upset."

The previous ordinance protected several kinds of native oaks. The city has added California sycamore and California black walnut to the list of protected species, recognizing those varieties to be locally important, Jordan said.

John Costa, senior legislative advocate for the North State Building Industry Association, said the ordinance is more aggressive than most. Expanding the protected list alarmed builders at first.

"We had concerns with adding species, because that adds costs to projects," said Costa, who participated in public hearings on the ordinance. "But we're comfortable with those on the list. Most of them are not in the path of proposed development."

Costa said the new ordinance provides more incentives and ways to mitigate for tree removal during property development.

The city now allows developers to mitigate for tree removal by incorporating those species into their landscape designs, an idea pitched by the building community, Jordan said.

The ordinance also created a "landmark tree program," which allows the City Council to pass resolutions to preserve certain trees because of their size, shape, type, location in the community or historic or cultural value. The designation is modeled on a similar program in Davis.

"There are a number of trees around the community that maybe don't fall into our list of protected species, but are either stately, or in a prominent location, or stand out because of their size or shape," Jordan said.

"It's for these trees we created a new category."

Property owners who wanted to remove a tree for safety reasons previously had to replant trees of similar size, but can now plant smaller trees or have the requirement waived, depending on an arborist's evaluation of the tree.

Jordan said the ordinance reflects the city's commitment to protecting and increasing the tree canopy for energy efficiency, air and water quality, and aesthetics.

"Trees are a part of the city's heritage; it's on our logo and in our branding," Jordan said. "It's a big part of the community."

Sacramento Bee: Yolo County Budget Faced with Many Challenges

Pensions, health costs and state inaction cloud Yolo County budget

Published: Monday, Apr. 25, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
In Yolo County, budget officials are gearing for the next major test of balancing spending with available revenues – a task made harder by increasing health care and pension costs.

In recent years, Yolo – like other counties in the region – was hit hard by declines in both property tax and sales tax revenues.

Now, just as sources of tax revenue are starting to stabilize, the county faces yet another tough budget challenge because of a rapid rise in pension and health care costs for employees and retirees, Yolo County Administrator Patrick Blacklock said.

The tally: The county will pay $4.8 million more to the California Public Employees' Retirement System to cover the higher health care and pension costs for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Through fiscal 2015-16, the county's five-year cost of health and pension benefits will reach a combined $15.6 million.

Nearly two-thirds of that amount, or $9.9 million, will be required just for health care costs, county budget forecasts show.

Department heads already are planning for the increased expenses and, so far, have closed all but $3.5 million of a projected $13 million budget gap for the upcoming 2011-12 fiscal year.

Most of the cuts so far involved elimination of 70 positions left vacant because of a hiring freeze.

A draft budget proposal goes before the Board of Supervisors on May 3; it will offer strategies for closing the remaining shortfall without the scores of layoffs and early retirements that marked prior years, Blacklock said.

In the last four years, Yolo County's workforce has declined from more than 1,700 workers to 1,252.

The county also imposed furloughs on the remaining employees and began a process of reorganizing departments and sharing workloads for greater efficiency.

Labor groups representing most county workers have agreed to forgo salary increases in the next fiscal year. Furloughs are continuing.

Some labor groups also have agreed to have employees pick up a portion of their retirement costs, Blacklock said.

But there's no assurance that budget problems gripping the state won't throw Yolo County's budget – and the budgets of all other counties – out of kilter.

California's deficit for the next fiscal year stands at $15.4 billion.

"The lack of action by the state leaves us in a continuous state of uncertainty that makes it very difficult to plan," Blacklock said. "All of this can be undone by what happens at the state."

Most counties, in fact, are figuring that the news from the state won't be good.

To prepare, Blacklock said, he will present a second, modified, budget proposal to county supervisors that will try to anticipate state cuts.

The chief uncertainty: Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an extension of a portion of the vehicle license fee to help fund a realignment of state prisons.

The VLF fee, which provides about $2 million a year to Yolo County, expires June 30.

Brown's plan, contained in SB 109, would shift "lower level" criminal offenders away from prisons and into county jails.

Under the program, counties also would administer juvenile court cases and mental health programs and supervise adult parolees.

The worry among counties – including Yolo – is that additional funding won't be available or will be insufficient.

Blacklock said that if a measure extending taxes, including the vehicle license fee, does not go to voters, the governor has said he will sign a budget only if it makes up the state's shortfall through additional cuts.

Additional cuts would be bleak for Yolo County, Blacklock told department heads a few weeks ago, and would push the county's shortfall to as much as $18 million.

Erin Treadwell, spokeswoman for the California State Association of Counties, said counties already "have to plan for the worst. They are preparing for the expiration of the VLF."

If that happens, she said, it is likely to trigger layoffs of counties' public safety workers and probation officers, and reduce public services.

Treadwell said the association supports Brown's proposed ballot measure, which was drafted as a constitutional amendment, as a way to ensure sufficient revenue to carry out prison realignment.

Sacramento Bee: City of West Sacramento Remodeling West Capitol Ave.

Mayor betting on bowling alley remodel to bring night life to West Capitol Avenue

Published: Monday, Apr. 25, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B 

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon is pinning his hopes on a bowling alley remodel to help rejuvenate West Capitol Avenue.
The stretch of former Highway 40 is being transformed into the city's new main street. A sleek community center and a bustling college campus now share a block with City Hall. Wide sidewalks, landscaping and a public-transit center help complete the picture.

But the cleaned-up avenue, once a notorious haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes, is a little short on nightlife these days.

That's where Capitol Bowl comes in, Cabaldon said.

"It's going to bring energy to our new boulevard," the mayor said.

Starting today, the 1950s-era bowling alley, orginally part of the posh El Rancho Hotel complex, will be remodeled from dingy and dated to retro and cool.

A swank U-shaped bar will replace the current dark dive. Outdoor seating around a fire pit promises to enhance the hipster factor on West Capitol Avenue.

"We want to keep the funkiness and lose the dive bar," said manager Chris White.

Owner Ross Amin, who bought the alley 12 years ago, has already replaced the 20 lanes, pins and seating. The restrooms have been gussied up. And a stylish concrete floor replaced ugly tile.

Now the big work begins: knocking out water-stained walls, raising plastic foam ceilings and getting rid of the rest of the pink-and-blue tile.

The facade will get a face-lift, with metal and stone replacing drab concrete.

The bowling alley will stay open while the $600,000 renovation moves forward.

Amin and White said they're hoping to have the rennovations done in time for the annual Lebowski Fest in August, when fans from across the region pay homage to the bowling-noir movie "The Big Lebowski."
Capitol Bowl has a "kind of cult following from both sides of the river," said Denice Seals, president of the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce.

On Thursday, about two dozen patrons – from hard-core bowlers to families with young children – turned out for the daily lunch special: two games, shoe rental and a burger or sandwich with fries for $11.

Display screens overhead flashed messages at bowlers. "Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bowled here in the 1970s when it was El Rancho Bowl," read one.

Marla Clayton, 36, of West Sacramento spent the lunch hour bowling with her son Tyler, 10, and friend Jay Johnson, 31. She's been coming there for years, she said.

"It's got more atmosphere than just a bowling alley," Clayton said. "It's small enough that it's always going to keep that family feel."

On Friday there was a party to celebrate the remodel and raise funds for the Special Olympics.

Cabaldon said he's hoping the renovation, partly paid for with a city redevelopment loan, can help jump-start the business activity – shops, restaurants and entertainment venues – that planners envision along West Capitol.

"We've had a lot of public investment on West Capitol," Cabaldon said. "We've set the stage for private investment on the boulevard."

"This," he said, standing outside the bowling alley, "is a critical component."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

SF Chronicle: Most SF Public Safety Workers Do Not Live in the City

Most S.F. firefighters, cops don't live in city

Representatives of the city's firefighters and police officers have been knee-deep in pension reform talks with Mayor Ed Lee, saying their members can't afford anywhere near the contribution rates being pushed by Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

That may be, but their oft-used claim that their workers need big paychecks to afford this pricey city doesn't necessarily hold up under scrutiny. You know, the kind of scrutiny that shows the vast majority of them hightailing it out of San Francisco once their shifts are over.

Statistics from the city's Department of Human Resources show only 25 percent of police officers live in the city. Thirty percent live in San Mateo County, 17.5 percent live in Contra Costa County and the rest live scattered around the Bay Area or even outside it.

A third of firefighters live in the city, while 16 percent live in San Mateo County, 11 percent in Sonoma County and 8 percent in Alameda County. Seven percent of them don't live in the Bay Area at all. Tom O'Connor, their union head, said many paramedics hired during a shortage about a decade ago still live in Modesto, Stockton and even the Lake Tahoe area.

Forty-six percent of city workers in other job classifications - most of them paid less than police officers and firefighters - live in the city. We hear from the HR department that the lower you're paid, the more likely you are to live in San Francisco.

Of course, this could matter tremendously after an earthquake, if emergency responders aren't able to make it into the city - especially since many of them would need to drive over a bridge to get here. Despite the city's new law mandating that residents be hired for city-funded construction projects, there's no requirement for where emergency responders must live.

That's because the state Constitution - Article 11, Section 10 (b) for those checking - bars local governments, including charter cities like San Francisco, from telling workers they have to live in town.
The union heads for police officers and firefighters said their workers usually live in the city when they're young, single renters - but head elsewhere once they're ready to start a family and buy a house.

Gary Delagnes, head of the Police Officers Association, lives in Novato. He said many police officers live in Petaluma, Windsor, Antioch, Pittsburgh, South San Francisco and San Bruno. Some live as far away as Fairfield, Vacaville and Dixon.

"It's kind of funny because people use this $100,000 figure like it's a lot of money. 'Oh my God! Policemen make over $100,000 a year!' " he said. "How far does $100,000 go in the Bay Area? Especially when you're paying 10, 12, 14 percent in retirement contributions."

The maximum base pay for a police officer in San Francisco will be $104,286 as of July 1, which is 4.5 percent higher than their counterparts around the Bay Area, according to the HR department. Officers pay 9 percent toward pensions, but will probably have to pay more in coming years.

O'Connor declined to say where he lives. He said it can be beneficial to have some emergency responders living outside the city so that in a major earthquake, they're not coping with their own personal losses.

As we told you recently, the HR department says firefighters are the only job classification in the city paid way more than their counterparts in the rest of Bay Area. Their maximum base pay as of July 1 will be $108,888, or $48.37 an hour. On an hourly basis, that's 36.06 percent higher than their Bay Area counterparts.

O'Connor said that's because San Francisco is the seventh-busiest fire department in the country, and it's unfair to compare its heavy workload to other, smaller departments. "We're beyond the pale of all the other departments they're comparing us to," he said.

Inalnd Valley Daily Bulletin: Pension Mess for Local Government

Pension quagmire

Leaders didn't think CalPERS increases would be a problem
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Unions wanted them. Pension managers said they were affordable. Elected officials approved them. But improved pension benefits granted to public employees over the past 12 years are now costing local governments dearly. And for that, officials acknowledge, there's plenty of blame to go around.
"I think everybody got it wrong," said former state Sen. Jim Brulte, a Republican who represented much of San Bernardino County and voted in 1999 to give better pensions to state workers.
Looking back, local leaders say overly optimistic assumptions about the economy spurred the state and some cities and counties to raise pension benefits, especially for public safety personnel, starting a chain reaction that eventually pushed other agencies to follow suit.
"It was a frenzy," said San Bernardino County CEO Greg Devereaux. "It was a frenzy based on bad information."
Strong approval
In 1999, Brulte and 38 other state senators - Republicans and Democrats alike - approved a bill that gave expanded pensions to most state workers. The bill gave lucrative "3-at-50" pensions, which allow workers to retire at age 50 with three percent of their final pay multiplied by each year of service, to California Highway Patrol officers.
For instance, if an officer with 30 years on the force retired at age 50 with a final salary of $75,000, the officer would earn $67,500 per year for the rest of their lives.

At the time, officials from the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, said the state could easily afford the added benefits.
"I remember, we quizzed the CalPERS folks on whether they could assure us there would be no additional hit to the (state) general fund," Brulte said. "They assured us that would be the case. Which is why I think it passed nearly unanimously."
Indeed, the bill, SB 400, passed 39-0 in the Senate and 70-7 in the Assembly. According to the Assembly analysis of the bill, even with the added benefits, the state would pay less than $800 million per year for pensions through 2009.
"Boy, the CalPERS people were definitely wrong about that," Brulte said.
In fact, the state's pension costs climbed dramatically - helped along by subsequent additions to employee benefits - rising to $2.8 billion in 2008-09.
Pension bandwagon
After the state raised its pensions, many cities, counties and other local government agencies followed suit.
In 2000, 49 local agencies gave 3-at-50 pensions to their police officers or firefighters. In 2001, 116 more agencies did the same. Colton and Chino police officers got 3-at-50 in 2000, Colton firefighters got it in 2001, as did Banning and Beaumont police officers.
Devereaux, who was then the city manager of Ontario, said CalPERS was telling cities the same thing they'd told the state: that the added benefits would be affordable.
"The costs they were putting out for 3-at-50, they were relatively low," he said.
At the time, cities were paying little or nothing for their pension plans. San Bernardino County, which has its own retirement system separate from CalPERS, paid nothing for most employees and only 2.3 percent of pay for public safety employees in the 2002 fiscal year.
That made it difficult to argue against the bigger pensions when unions came to ask for them.
"It became very difficult for local staff to explain some of the inherent risks of (Cal)PERS not meeting their earning projections," Devereaux said. "It's hard for a local staff to have credibility over the agency managing the money."
Asked about Devereaux's assertion that the agency essentially encouraged cities to boost pensions, CalPERS spokesman Wayne Davis said only, "Our job is to provide all the information we can for the local agencies to make informed decisions."
A bargaining chip
After steady growth through the '90s, the stock market became more volatile in 2000 and took big hits in 2001 and 2002.
But in 2002 and 2003, agencies continued to add 3-at-50 pension benefits. This time, instead of rosy economic projections, officials say they were motivated by competition and by what they thought might be a good bargain.
"The sheriff thought he wasn't going to be able to recruit employees if he couldn't compete with what the state and other agencies were doing," said Dennis Hansberger, a former San Bernardino County Supervisor who voted in 2003 to approve 3-at-50 pensions for sheriff's deputies. "He was saying, `If I can't offer those sorts of wages and benefits, how am I going to keep my force?"'
Jim Erwin, who at that time was president of the union representing sheriff's deputies - the San Bernardino County Safety Employees' Benefit Association - said the county got more out of the deal than a recruiting tool.
In an unrelated matter, Erwin is charged with conspiracy to commit a crime, bribery and perjury in connection with a corruption probe involving a $102 million settlement San Bernardino County reached in 2006.
In 1997, the California Supreme Court ruled that some of the benefits public employees had received over the years - such as uniform allowances or car allowances - had to count toward employee pensions.
"That caused a huge increase in the benefits people are entitled to, and it was ordered by the courts," said San Bernardino County Treasurer-Tax Collector Larry Walker.
After an appeals process, the court's decision in the case - known as the Ventura case - was finalized in 2003. Erwin said sheriff's deputies settled with the county on the Ventura case in the process of negotiating 3-at-50 pension benefits.
"They said, `We won't argue over Ventura if you give us this,"' said John Michaelson, the county's former chief administrative officer. "It was a bargaining chip for them and it would have cost the county something."
And even without that chip, Erwin and Michaelson said the county pension fund was doing relatively well at the time.
Public employee unions have money and political clout, and the deputies' union - the San Bernardino County Safety Employees' Benefit Association - was, and is, a big contributor to the campaigns of county leaders. But Erwin said sheriff's deputies wouldn't have gotten 3-at-50 pensions if anyone had foreseen the recession that, in 2003, was only five years away.
"If they did (see it coming), there's no way we would have gotten 3-at-50," he said. "All the (political action committee) money in the world wouldn't have gotten that through."
Trend continues
Between 2003 and 2008, although pension costs continued to rise, local agencies continued to add 3-at-50 pension benefits.
In Rialto, the City Council approved 3-at-50 pensions for police officers and firefighters in 2008. Those benefits kicked in late last year.
Rialto Councilman Ed Scott said city leaders didn't want to give 3-at-50 pensions.
"We avoided it because we knew it was an expensive cost," he said. "We held off as long as we could."
But by 2008, Scott said so many agencies had 3-at-50 that Rialto had to follow suit. Fontana added 3-at-50 in 2004, San Bernardino in 2008, Redlands in 2005, Ontario in 2003 and 2004, Pomona in 2002.
"We got to a point where we could no longer recruit new employees," he said. "We were getting what I would call bottom-of-the-barrel folks. We had to be competitive with other agencies."
In the late '90s, state leaders thought a rising stock market would keep pension costs low. In the case of Rialto in 2008, Scott said he and others thought the housing market would allow the city to afford the more expensive benefits.
"The economy was good," he said. "We had good reserves. We had a lot of growth projected. We had, on the table, almost a doubling of our households in the city. Of course, all that has fallen by the wayside."
In short, Scott said what nearly every elected official seems to say about the pension benefits that were granted over the past 12 years: "At the time, it clearly looked good."

LA Times/ USC Poll Finds Support for Tax Extensions/ Hikes in a Ballot

April 23, 2011, 4:15 p.m.
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Contra Costa Times: Political Polling Struggles with Shift to Cell Phones

Lisa Vorderbrueggen: Pollsters' cellphone quagmire

The rapidly burgeoning numbers of people who have jettisoned their home telephones is a mixed bag for pollsters and political consultants.

Almost one in five Californians relies solely on a cellphone, a nearly 10 percentage point jump since 2007, according to the latest national statistics.

On the down side, federal law bars calling cellphones with the aid of automatic or predictive phone-dialing equipment, the staple of pollsters and sophisticated robocall and telemarketing systems.

The restriction emerged before most cellphone plans offered unlimited minutes, and consumers passionately opposed fees for unwanted and unsolicited calls.

"We worry about it a lot," said Oakland-based pollster Alex Evans. "But we have ways to deal with it."
The chief answer, like most things, is more money.

If a representative sample list contains respondents with cellphone contacts, the survey team must dial the numbers by hand, which takes longer and costs more. Given the growing percentage of cellphone users, pollsters find it increasingly likely that they must spend more to conduct at least a portion of their calls manually.

The pollsters' bane is a boon for campaign managers and political phone bank organizers.

They can skip the expensive installation of a roomful of temporary telephone lines. Most campaign volunteers have their own cellphones and can make calls from voter lists that now
routinely contain cellular numbers.

And recipients no longer have to be home to take a call from a pollster or a campaign.

Inexplicably, people wonder how pollsters and campaigns obtain cell numbers. There is no public equivalent of the published landline telephone book for cellular numbers, and most of the online search engines require a fee or subscription.

But people are far less parsimonious with their cell numbers than they once were, especially those who gave up their land-lines and conduct all their business on a mobile device.

Many people now list cellphone numbers on their voter registration forms or when they sign up online with a political party or other entity.

Data companies regularly scrape the Web for cell numbers and sell the information, which has become more stable now that consumers may keep the same number even if they change service providers.

Many cellphone consumers fear federal regulations will wane and they will start once again picking up for annoying automated calls from candidates and ballot measure campaigns.

But there's always another way in the high-tech world, as one consultant points out.

Texting will largely replace the use of robocalls, said Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento-based consultant and past president of the American Association of Political Consultants. Believe it or not, he says, political activists don't really want to interrupt your dinner. They want results.

"A lot of people who would be annoyed to receive a phone call are signing up to receive text updates or messages," Johnson said. "A lot of activist organizations are starting to maintain phone lists, and send out text messages asking people to call this legislator or take this action."

WE DIGRESS: On the related subject of technology and activism, Johnson takes a dim view of Facebook as an agent of political change.

"The greatest threat to human involvement is Facebook," Johnson said. "Fight world hunger? Click 'Like.' Seriously? Like? Facebook has turned every cause into clicks. It's not about actually doing anything."

MORE DIGRESSION: One might expect California, home to the high-tech capital of the world, to rank near the top when it comes a state-by-state percentage breakout of cellphone-only households.
But that distinction belongs to Arkansas and Mississippi, where 35 percent of households rely solely on a cellular phone compared with 18 percent in the Golden State.
Why? It's the poor who cannot afford both a landline and a cellphone.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

SF Chronicle: Governor Defends Prison Contract

Jerry Brown defends prison guard contract

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Gov. Jerry Brown this week slammed Republican lawmakers and other critics of a contract agreement he made with the 30,000-member prison guards union, saying the deal is virtually identical to pacts his Republican predecessor made with other unions that they readily supported.

The agreements with the California Correctional Police Officers Association and five other public employee unions representing another 20,000 state workers were seen as a victory for Brown's administration until GOP lawmakers began picking them apart.

Critics say the contract proposals won't cut state spending by nearly enough. That claim was bolstered this week when a nonpartisan analyst concluded the deals will save $129 million less than Brown estimated in his budget plan.

The governor said he deliberately overestimated how much savings would be achieved as a negotiating tactic.

'A good deal'

"Collective bargaining is about give and take ... and we think we did a good deal," a peeved Brown told The Chronicle this week. "You have to create a balance and work with your workforce. The legislators can come up here and mouth off, but you can't run a state having warfare with all of your employees, which is what happened with the last administration."

The governor will need at least four Republican legislators - two in each house - to win approval for the contract bill, known as SB151. He argued that the prison guards' contract not only cuts millions out of the budget, but will give management more flexibility to make changes at prisons without being challenged by the union - a concession that state officials had tried to win for years.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the correctional officers association had a notoriously nasty relationship, and the prison guards had been working without a contract since 2006.

Brown noted other victories, including that the contract would end a state-funded, $42 million-a-year 401(k)-type plan that correctional officers received in addition to their pensions. He said the guards have also agreed to support the transfer of thousands of inmates out of state prisons and into local jails.

Overall, the six contracts would, among other things, do away with imposed furloughs, increase state employees' pension contributions and temporarily cut pay for a year before giving top earners a raise in 2013. Schwarzenegger negotiated the same terms with other public worker unions last fall, and lawmakers approved those contracts.

But opposition to the new agreements was fueled this week when the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concluded the six contracts would result in only about $179 million in savings next fiscal year for the deficit-plagued general fund, not the $308 million assumed in the 2011-12 budget approved by lawmakers last month. Those savings will disappear by 2012-13, the analyst said, when costs will begin to climb once again.
Republican lawmakers said the discrepancy is a major problem, because the state is facing a $26.6 billion deficit.

Assessing the cost

"I think he's going to have a difficult time getting those votes," said Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel (Orange County), who voted against the contract bill in a Senate committee. "My main concern is what the cost is going to be for taxpayers."

Walters declined to criticize specifics of the contract, but said the "overall financial picture has me very concerned."

The Senate could take up SB151 Monday, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga (San Bernardino County). Dutton has not decided how he will vote, but said he is worried that less savings will result in "even more cuts to education and other areas of public safety."

Brown has also taken heat this week for a provision in the prison guards' new contract that removes a limit on how much vacation, sick time and other paid time off they can accrue.

As The Chronicle reported last month, prison guards and their supervisors currently have more than 33 million hours on the books - a $1 billion liability for the state that was exacerbated by furloughs imposed by Schwarzenegger. The state has consistently failed to enforce its 640-hour, or 16-week, limit in part because it is difficult to schedule time off for workers whose agencies must operate around the clock.

In total, according to the legislative analyst, state workers have the equivalent of $3.5 billion in paid time off on the books. Prison guards have, on average, 19 weeks of leave time accrued.

The problem is particularly acute at prisons, because workers were forced to take the 15 percent pay cut associated with the furloughs but still had to work those days - meaning they were accruing both furlough days and vacation days without being able to use them. Under the new contract, the three-day-a-month furloughs will end.

"The cap wasn't doing anything," Brown said. "Giving up that cap was trivial compared to the overall contract."

Political support

The powerful prison guards union supported Brown during last year's race for governor, and some political observers have suggested the contract is political payback - an accusation the governor denied.

"I raised $40 million (to get elected)," he said. "You can say that about every bill."

Dutton said he is more concerned about bigger issues such as pension reform, long-term uncontrolled costs and giving prison managers more flexibility.

The fact that Brown is a Democrat, or that the correctional officers association was a political donor, are not issues for him, Dutton said.

"I never really look at those things, I try to take a look at the bottom line," he said, adding that he wasn't fond of the deals Schwarzenegger struck either. "I want to make sure we are frugal with taxpayer dollars, get the most bang for our bucks, and still provide the level of services we need."

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle