Monday, October 31, 2011

San Francisco Chronicle - Developing Delta water plan for So. Cal. faces scrutiny

Water suppliers' delta accord under scrutiny

Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Sacramento --

California is moving at breakneck speed on a plan to build what could be huge tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to carry water from Northern California to Southern California and the Central Valley.

The final project may use a smaller tunnel or perhaps a canal around the delta, but the big tunnel approach is favored by those that would benefit most: the major suppliers of water for agriculture and for Southern California residents.

Those water suppliers have been granted significant control over the project in a recently signed agreement between the federal and state governments that has angered some Northern California public officials, who last week objected to the arrangement.

Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and three other members of Congress from Northern California raised objections in a strongly worded letter to the federal Department of the Interior, which brokered the deal. They wrote that the agreement gives water contractors "unprecedented influence over the process" and should be withdrawn.

"This raises very serious questions about whose process this is, ultimately; if the water export contractors' funding has given them control over the process, it would be to the detriment of the Bay-Delta and to the public interest," they wrote.

Legal battle

Under the deal, water suppliers will pay for the environmental impact report, must approve the consultants who do it, and can review it before it is made public. That memorandum of agreement comes amid a protracted legal battle over the threatened delta smelt.

"If there are changes being made to reflect the wishes of contractors before it becomes a public document, it might be difficult to parse that out," said Anton Favorini-Csorba, who studied the agreement for the Legislative Analyst's Office.

After the Northern California officials complained, the state Department of Water Resources and federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that they would take public comment on the agreement.
At issue is California's Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a 50-year proposal to restore the delta ecosystem while making water supplies taken from it more reliable. The plan was started in 2006 when water exporters sought to cement their diversions and revive collapsing fish species.

The plan is intended to improve the ecosystem to a degree that state and federal governments would issue permits to allow for the incidental killing of some endangered species, thus clearing the way for the construction of a pipeline or canal to move water.

Potential pitfalls

It's an effort loaded with potential political pitfalls even as people on all sides cling to hope that the right actions will be taken before a major earthquake hits the region, causing widespread human and economic disaster if levees, as predicted, fail.

Not only would that result in extensive flooding, it would cut off water supplies to residents and farmers throughout the state.

Despite the urgency to fix the delta, state lawmakers and others say they see multiple red flags with the current process - among them that the giant pipelines are being sought even though no one knows how big a project is actually needed or how it will be paid for. Lawmakers warn that the whole effort could soon fall apart.

Contractors would pay for construction and operations of whatever is built by raising water rates. There is not yet a secure source of money to pay for delta restorations.

That concerns environmentalists, who also believe that science to determine the actual needs of the ecosystem have taken a backseat to project planning.

For their part, water contractors say they will abandon the work if they aren't guaranteed sufficient water supplies. Westlands Water District, which covers 600,000 acres of Central Valley farmland, announced it was walking away last year because of a broken agreement on water supplies and alleged scientific malfeasance by the Department of the Interior. The district came back after a federal judge blasted the department's science.

Contractors said the signed agreement ensures that the process continues to move forward on a known timeline, and that they know what they are getting for their money. Contractors already have spent $140 million on the planning process and will pay $100 million more.

"From our standpoint, we're not trying to have access to the exclusion of others. We're trying to make sure we've exercised all of our rights to at least see what we are paying for," said Roger Patterson, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides drinking water for 19 million people.

Jason Peltier, deputy general manager for Westlands, said the focus of planning has been on the largest project, two underground tunnels that could carry up to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second, but said the agency is open to other options. Pumps north of Tracy currently move water at 767 cubic feet per second, though the whole system is capable of moving more than 16,000 cubic feet per second.

The nine other options under consideration include smaller projects, with the smallest having a capacity of 3,000 cubic feet per second. Contractors said that probably would be too small. Cost estimates have ranged widely, but officials believe the tunnel project could run $12 billion to $16 billion.

Peltier said the district is still determining how much water it will need in the future. Westlands is allowed up to 1 million acre-feet per year, but has gotten considerably less in recent years because of federal government restrictions to protect salmon and delta smelt.

He said that and other issues will determine if the district agrees to pay for a project.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said water contractors and state officials suffer from a "lack of realism" about what can and should be done.

"You have a state and a nation that is in almost depression, and you have a wall of debt that the governor has talked about. You have an unwillingness to pay, a series of unrealistic assumptions by the contractors, and a schedule that is hell-bent on completion of this in a short period of time," she said. "I think it's a recipe for failure once again."

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, recently held a hearing on the progress of the work and said it raised serious concerns for him. They include the agreement giving water contractors prior review, what he sees as a lack of a focus on science, and the proposed size of the project.

He said he believes a proposal for the largest option would be "dead on arrival." He said anyone who thinks more water will be taken from the delta than is currently is "delusional."

'The delta is dying'

"I think this reality check needs to come because the status quo in the delta is unacceptable. The delta is dying," he said. "But if it's this overreach by exporters ... then we're really not getting anywhere."
State water officials said California should not limit its thinking about the size of projects the state can pull off.

Gerald Meral, deputy secretary for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in the Department of Water Resources, said he had no concerns about the agreement with contractors. The reason the state entered into it, he said, "is this project is being paid for directly by the water contractors."

Meral said if a large-scale project becomes the goal, "That's a decision (contractors) will have to make. Can they afford to build this and, if so, do they want to build this?"

To get involved

The plan: To see the full memorandum of agreement, go to www.
To comment: Submit via e-mail to or by mail to Bureau of Reclamation, Bay-Delta Office, 801 I St., Suite 140, Sacramento, CA 95814 by 5 p.m. Nov. 16.

San Jose Mercury News: San Jose's updated "smart growth" general plan

San Jose's updated general plan emphasizes 'smart growth,' healthier communities

Jobs before housing. People before cars.

After 51 task force meetings, seven community workshops and 125 "outreach sessions" stretching over four years, San Jose's Planning Department will cross the finish line at Tuesday's City Council meeting with that message when it delivers a blueprint of what San Jose will look and feel like in the decades to come.

Called Envision San Jose 2040, the city's fourth general plan since the mid-1970s is the community's land-use constitution. The report lays out a long-term vision for the amount, type and phasing of development needed to meet the city's social, economic and environmental goals.

While it's true that many of the participants agreed the final product took too long to achieve, with few exceptions they seem satisfied with the outcome that emphasizes two major themes: moving San Jose away from its "bedroom community" and "Los Angeles of the north" legacy by increasing its employment and tax base; and designing the kinds of neighborhoods that create healthier populations less reliant on cars.

"Think about how you lived 30 years ago and how you live today and what has changed," Planning Director Joe Horwedel said. "Now, think about 30 years from now and how you'll live, how your kids will live and what you would like to work better."

For many, he said, it's not having to drive as much. Horwedel and other planners envision "urban villages" closer to where San Jose residents live that offer a variety of ways to live, work, shop and play all at one location.

The one-stop lifestyle isn't going to happen tomorrow, Horwedel said. But these and other key concepts are part of what the 2040 general plan is aiming for in the coming three decades.

With about a million residents, San Jose is the 10th-largest U.S. city -- and the third-largest in California. So the scope of its planning challenges is complicated.

The cash-strapped city, for example, has tried before to stop converting its valuable remaining industrial land -- where it could locate businesses that provide both jobs and taxes -- for housing. But powerful housing developers and lobbyists have pressured many City Council members to ignore that objective.

This plan, said City Councilman and task force member Pierluigi Oliverio, "is stating loud and clear that we have a budget crisis, and we need to manage land use differently."

The updated general plan, expected to be voted on by the council Tuesday night, does that by seeking to preserve land for jobs; develop only within existing municipal street, sewer and utility areas; and build taller, denser housing mixed with retail and office space -- all of which generates more taxes to pay for city services such as police protection and libraries.

"It will take political will to implement the plan and stay true to the principles that are in the plan,'' said Assistant Planning Director Laurel Prevetti, adding that she has "confidence in our elected officials."

Among the goals the plan suggests over the next three decades within the city's 180 squares miles are:

  • Adding as many as 470,000 new jobs and 120,000 new housing units.

  • Emphasizing growth in the downtown, North San Jose and "urban villages" along current and future transit lines such as BART, high-speed rail and dedicated bus lanes.

  • Rethinking the design of major streets to encourage more biking and walking

  • Equally important to many is what won't be developed: Both mid-Coyote Valley and South Almaden Valley are off-limits to development through 2040. (South Coyote Valley remains protected as a greenbelt.)

    "In the past, San Jose had a tendency to grow by sprawling out onto the farm lands," said Michele Beasley of the Greenbelt Alliance. "That's why the general plan says we should basically accommodate growth through infill development" that promotes new housing, jobs and retail around transit corridors.

    Another big objective: reducing car miles traveled by 40 percent over the next three decades -- not only through the addition of at least 70 urban villages, but also by adding miles of trails and bike paths.

    "For over a half-century, San Jose's development patterns have built a city for cars, and our sprawl and auto-dependence reflects those choices," said City Councilman Sam Liccardo, who along with former Councilwoman Shirley Lewis co-chaired the 33-member task force of community leaders appointed by the council. "We've got a vision to transform this to a city designed for people rather than for cars, and we'll measure our success by the vibrancy and usage of our sidewalks, bike lanes and transit corridors."

    Developers and builders, however, aren't as thrilled with the plan's outcome, which will affect their ability to build as many large and lucrative housing tracts. Instead, the emphasis will be on more -- and taller -- apartments and condos, with some townhomes and single-family homes.

    Task force member Erik Schoennauer, a land-use consultant whose father was a city planning director, signed off on the plan, albeit reluctantly. Though he admires its progressive themes, he's concerned about how private property owners and developers "can invest in the city." The plan, he said, "makes it more
    difficult to determine how to do that."

    Developer Michael Van Every, another member of the task force, was more blunt.

    "They have eliminated quite a few jobs by limiting housing," said the senior vice president at Republic Urban Properties. "You can't put artificial caps on housing and somehow decide that jobs are more important, when jobs and housing are synchronous."

    Both Horwedel and Prevetti acknowledge that the new plan does change a builder or developer's world.
    But that, they say, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    Said Horwedel: "This plan was very much about San Jose being in control of our future rather than a developer in the past deciding what was in their best interest in flipping property to housing."

    California Watch: New seismic inventory finds potentially unsafe buildings

    New seismic inventory identifies potentially unsafe buildings


    SF Chronicle: CSU begins to introduce an online undergraduate program

    CSU rolling out online undergraduate program

    Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    San Bernardino Sun: Ballot measure proposed to eliminate public employee unions

    Ballot measure would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employee unions

    Will Bigham, The San Bernardino Sun

    Petitions are being circulated for a ballot measure designed to end collective bargaining for California's public- employee unions.  
    The End Public Sector Bargaining Act would eliminate collective-bargaining rights for public employees such as teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters. It is similar to a Wisconsin law passed this year.
    The measure would apply not only to state employees, but to employees at local government agencies such as counties, cities and school districts.
    The measure's sponsor, a UC Santa Barbara economics lecturer, must gather more than 800,000 signatures by Feb. 3 for the measure to qualify for the the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential ballot.
    Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, called the measure "dead on arrival" because of the state's left-leaning politics and strong union presence.
    "I'd be surprised if he can even get it qualified," Pitney said. "I doubt he can get enough signatures."
    The measure's sponsor, Lanny Ebenstein of Santa Barbara, could not be reached for comment.
    Ebenstein is a former board member at Santa Barbara Unified School District and an author who has written biographies of free-market economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

    In a recent commentary article on the Cal Watchdog website, Ebenstein called public-sector employees overpaid and blamed collective bargaining for their "inflated" compensation packages.
    "Ending public-sector collective bargaining would enable each local government agency in the state, and the state itself, to establish the pay cut-backs and benefit reductions that will make sense for it," Ebenstein wrote.
    "The status quo is unsustainable. In a democracy, it will not be the case that programs for seniors, children, the environment, the ill, the unemployed, the infirm and the homeless will be eviscerated to enable the remaining public servants and public-sector retirees to live in luxury."
    Pitney said he isn't aware of any financial support for Ebenstein's measure. He said funds from establishment Republicans will likely be diverted to candidates and measures that have a greater chance of success.
    "It would be really hard in California because unions have a great deal of power here," he said.
    Saying the measure was likely inspired by Wisconsin's union ban, Pitney said, "What happens in Wisconsin stays in Wisconsin."
    Dieter Dammeier, an Upland attorney who negotiates contracts on behalf of numerous Southern California police unions, said the elimination of collective bargaining would diminish the quality of law enforcement in the state.
    Dammeier said that good pay and benefits received by police officers in California attracts quality applicants and reduces the likelihood of police corruption.
    He said he doesn't believe Ebenstein's measure has a chance of passing. "The people of California are too enlightened to pass something like that," he said.
    Frank Wells, a Southern California spokesman for the California Teachers Association, agreed with Dammeier's assessment.
    "California is not Wisconsin, and obviously with the current governor and Legislature the ballot measure would be the only way to get that through, and I don't think the people would support that," he said.
    Wells, whose area of responsibility includes the Pomona and San Bernardino valleys, said collective bargaining regulates not only teacher compensation, but issues such as class sizes.

    "Obviously we and other labor groups, and certainly large numbers of the community, would fight it vigorously," Wells said.

    Sacramento Bee: School districts wait state revenue: brace for more cuts

    School districts wait to see if state revenue shortfalls trigger more cuts

     © Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.
    School officials are on the edge of their seats.

    In six weeks, they should know if they have to cut buses, shorten the school year, ask teachers to take furlough days, raid their reserves or cut programs.

    That's when revised revenue projections are expected from the state. If revenues fall short, it could trigger up to $1.75 billion in cuts that would hit K-12 districts in February.

    The state was $654 million short of its revenue projections at the beginning of October, but school officials aren't sure how much their districts will lose and what exactly they will do if the trigger is pulled.

    "It's almost impossible (to know)," said Rhonda Crawford, chief financial officer for Folsom Cordova Unified. "We do the best we can with what we know and what we can anticipate."

    Schools could lose 4 percent of their state revenue for student attendance if the trigger is pulled, as well $248 million in funds for bus transportation. The amount schools would lose depends on how close the state is to its revenue goal.

    "The moving target continues to be the biggest challenge," said Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified.

    Meanwhile, Assembly Bill 114, passed in July, makes it difficult for districts to squirrel away money just in case. The bill says school officials must ignore the prospect of the trigger and maintain staffing and program levels at the same funding level as last year.

    So most districts scuttled the "worst-case scenario" budgets they had prepared before the state's revised budget was approved and rehired many teachers and restored programs.

    Now districts have fewer options, although state legislators have given districts permission to cut the school year by another seven days. Some districts have already cut the school year from the previous minimum of 180 to 175 days.

    But cutting days must be negotiated with employee unions and, even if contracts are reopened, it isn't likely negotiations could be completed in two months.

    "Because we've already closed our contracts for this school year, it would be difficult to get everyone back at the table," Crawford said.

    There are exceptions. San Juan Unified's unions have agreed to take up to five furlough days if the trigger is pulled. And the Sacramento City Teachers Association contract allows both the union and the district opportunities to reopen the contract several times a year, Ross said.

    With transportation funding, however, there is little flexibility. Most districts have eliminated all but the most rural routes and federally mandated busing for special needs students.

    Ross of Sacramento City Unified said transportation is critical for kids living in urban areas. "We considered cutting transportation last year and luckily we didn't have to," he said. "Our preference would be not to look at it."

    Officials from both Folsom Cordova and Natomas unified districts say they won't cut programs this school year, even if the state cuts funding. Folsom Cordova officials said they will rely on one-time federal stimulus dollars and other belt-tightening measures to save programs. Natomas Unified will be able to fall back on a $5 million cushion, said Walt Hanline, interim superintendent.

    And, while district officials stopped short of saying they budgeted conservatively in case the trigger is pulled to comply with the new law, they do say they are analyzing district jobs and programs to find efficiencies.
    They are concerned about how the faltering economy, state deferrals of school funds and budget cuts will affect their school districts over the next two years, they say.

    Ron Bennet, president of School Services of California, which advises districts on fiscal matters, issued a report warning that economic indicators are pointing toward budget shortfalls for the next few years. He warns school districts to continue to negotiate with unions for concessions, to cut costs and to hold on to reserves.

    "To even think we are going to have two more years of even further cuts then we've experienced, it boggles the mind," said Steven Ladd, superintendent of Elk Grove Unified.

    Hanline said a trigger for the 2013-14 school year "becomes Armageddon" as teacher agreements sunset and districts run out of federal stimulus money aimed at creating jobs.

    In preparation, he has turned to a committee of more than 50 community members and employees who are working on goals and objectives for the district to propose to the school board.

    "We are going to make the cuts from the bottom of the priority list," he said.

    San Jose Mercury News: $9 billion at-risk in California high speed rail decision

    California's bullet train gamble begins: $9 billion now on the line

    California's top leaders weighing the fate of the $45 billion high-speed train line will finally get the crucial details they need Tuesday to decide once and for all: Is it time to kill the project or empty the bank account to start building the sleek railroad with no guarantees there will be enough money to run a single bullet train?

    Quitting now would force the state to return a massive federal grant if they scrap the rail line. But launching the project in the sparsely populated Central Valley, as is now planned, could mean spending an astonishing $9 billion in taxpayer funds to build only enough track to serve as a brief shortcut for a few thousand Amtrak riders.

    And with a deadline looming to start construction by this time next year or lose $2.2 billion in federal funding, the stakes couldn't be higher.

    "It's a very tough decision. If you go down this path (and build), you're committing the state to an unknown amount of money," said Elizabeth Alexis, a leading analyst on the project with Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

    In the works for two decades, high-speed rail will take center stage with the release of its final business plan Tuesday. It will feature new estimates on cost, funding sources, riders and just about everything else associated with the nation's biggest public works project. The plan's approval by the governor and Legislature would allow construction to start in the Central Valley by this time next year.

    But the California High-Speed Rail Authority first will need to show it has a realistic shot at finding the money needed to complete the full voter-approved line, which would whisk passengers on the nation's fastest train from San Francisco along the Caltrain corridor en route to Los Angeles. Currently, the state has enough funding to build only a 130-mile section between Fresno and Bakersfield, too small to begin service.

    Huge costs, little gain?

    In a preview of the plan submitted earlier this month to lawmakers, planners said they hope the federal government gives California more funding, to be matched by state bonds, to extend the line to either San Jose or Southern California so train service can start.

    But the federal spigot of high-speed rail funds was shut off this year and will drip only a minuscule amount of cash next year. If that trend continues and billions in federal funds don't arrive in the next several years, the rail authority says it would spend all its available money to finish the stretch of track in the Central Valley and then walk away from the bullet train project altogether -- after a huge cost.

    To build that first stretch of track, the state's beleaguered budget would be on the hook to repay $2.9 billion in bonds plus nearly as much in interest. The combined debt of $5.3 billion is more than the state's annual payment for both the University of California and California State University systems.

    In addition, the debt-saddled federal government will have spent $3.5 billion -- enough to run both the Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Marshals Service for a year.

    In all, taxpayers would have paid out $8.8 billion to build the tracks, which would be used to provide a 45-minute shortcut for the 3,000 riders on Amtrak's San Joaquin line. Meanwhile, hundreds of properties lying in the way of the tracks, including farms that provide food throughout the state, would be wiped out.

    "That's not what I bargained for when I voted for high-speed rail," said state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, of San Mateo, one of many Democrats who have been losing faith in the project along with Republicans who already oppose it. He said cutting health services and education to pay for those tracks would be like "abandoning a generation. It has to climb a major hurdle to justify the expenditure of more money."

    But the rail authority still sees the first stretch of track as money well spent, adding it's not uncommon for major projects to get under way without the full funding in hand.

    "It's not the perfect solution," said deputy director Lance Simmens. "But I can't stress enough how by proceeding like that, you are building something that has real value, has usefulness."

    Killing project not easy

    Yet it will be no easy task to cancel the project.

    First, if costs stop rising and the funding materializes, the state's down payment to launch the project may prove to be a springboard to extend the first leg far enough to start service.

    And perhaps most important to politicians: If California does not break ground on the rail line by this time next year, it will have to return more than $2.2 billion in federal stimulus grants, since the funds were tied to producing jobs quickly. For officials under fire to create jobs, turning back that much construction money would anger business and labor groups who have led the call to support the bullet train.

    Scrapping the railroad would all but send $650 million down the drain, as the rail authority has spent that much planning the project since 1998.

    Then there's the fact that voters already approved the project in 2008. But since then, the price tag has escalated by $12 billion, sources of funding have dried up, projected ticket prices have nearly doubled and expected rider counts have dwindled. In effect, the state isn't any closer to financing the project today than it was three years ago.

    Fresno Bee: Fresno County fights increased illegal dumping

    Fresno Co. supes consider mandatory trash service

    Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 | 10:38 PM

    Pota Yang is resigned to the fact that her rural neighborhood west of Fresno has become a literal dumping ground.

    Across the street from her home on Valentine Avenue, couches, televisions and mattresses are piled on an abandoned lot. Just 100 feet down the road, ripped bags of household waste spew old clothes, diapers, plastic bottles and a wooden tennis racket.

    "We'll just be sitting in the living room, watching TV and we'll see lights," Yang explained. "Then my dad will look outside and see they're dumping trash again."

    While illegal dumping has been a longtime problem in unincorporated Fresno County, in many communities it's on the rise. Some blame the economy, noting that fewer are paying for trash collection. Others blame cuts on law enforcement.

    Whatever the case, Fresno County supervisors have begun considering a plan to reduce chronic dumping: require county households to sign up for trash service. That way, the thinking goes, there won't be a need to dump.

    A survey released this month by the county suggests that just 45% of homes and businesses in the unincorporated areas have regular garbage collection. In most cities and in many other counties, the service is mandatory. It remains optional, though, in unincorporated Fresno County.

    "We're now seeing the effects of having less than 50% pick-up. We're seeing stuff thrown in alleyways, on roads and in rural areas," said Supervisor Henry Perea, who supports mandatory garbage service. "It's become a health and safety issue."

    He added, "There are some things that separate us from Third World countries and trash collection is one of them."

    Fewer are paying

    Insiders in the trash business agree the economy has helped bring the county's dumping situation to a head.

    "When people lose a job, that's one of the bills they cut," said John Thompson, the county public works manager, who oversees the 12 companies doing garbage collection in Fresno County. "There are just people who can no longer afford trash service."

    Collection bills typically run $30 to $40 per household each month, according to the county. In some areas and on bigger properties, the bill can run much higher -- $100 a month or more.

    Kerman-based Mid Valley Disposal, which provides trash pick-up from Yang's neighborhood outside Fresno all the way to Coalinga, has seen a roughly 10% drop-off in customers over the past 18 months.

    Company officials say the decline is a direct result of the economy and say that doesn't bode well for the dumping problem.

    "There are people who opt out of service and take their trash to the landfill or use the transfer station. But a larger percentage doesn't ... It's easier to throw it alongside the road when no one is looking or burn it," said Joseph Kalpakoff, general manager of Mid Valley Disposal.

    County public works crews, which are responsible for clearing roadside trash, have picked up more over the past three years than usual, officials said. They don't have the numbers, though, to detail the increase.
    Kalpakoff said in his service area, the spike in dumping is clear.

    And it's also clear, he added, that the increase is driven by residential trash that might otherwise have gone into a curbside bin.

    "We're still seeing the couch or tire alongside the road," Kalpakoff said. "But the trend now is household garbage being dumped. It's perishable waste, and it's all over the Valley floor."

    Some of the county's waste companies haven't seen demand for collection fall like it has on the west side.

    Industrial Waste and Salvage, which serves a small pocket south of Fresno, has experienced a less than 1% drop in business. Sunset Waste Management, which serves several communities east of Highway 99, has seen business remain flat, though many customers have switched to smaller and less-costly bins, company officials said.
    The hauling companies agree, though, that mandatory trash collection would go a long way to cleaning up the county.
    "If you only have half of the people participating in the program, where is the other half of that garbage going?" said John Mohoff, general manager of Sunset Waste Systems. "It stands to reason that the amount of illegal dumping would decline."

    Pros, cons of change

    Of course, companies such as Sunset would gain from the increased business that mandatory collection would bring. But customers also would benefit, they said, as the service costs are spread among more people and everybody pays a lower rate.

    Sunset customers near the cities of Sanger, Fowler and Kingsburg would see an average 6% to 8% decrease in their monthly bill, according to Mohoff.

    Mohoff and others have suggested the county would save money, too, because it wouldn't have to go out and clear as much dumped trash.

    The county, however, would incur an additional cost administering and enforcing the new pick-up requirement. That cost could be deferred, should the Board of Supervisors choose, through contract fees that waste companies pay to do business in the county.

    Mandatory trash pick-up is not universally supported. For many of the estimated 33,000 property owners who don't have garbage service, the new bill would come as an unwelcome surprise.

    "Most of the people in our area are responsible. We recycle. We compost," said Prather resident Bonnie Hancock, who doesn't think she should have to pay for service because others are dumping.

    County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian sympathizes and said she will fight against forcing people to pay for trash collection.

    "In this economy, is that what we want to do: make it harder for people to make ends meet?" she said.
    Many homes, Poochigian added, are empty or used only by vacationers and don't need regular pick-up.
    Public works officials have begun meeting with people in the waste industry and, at the direction of the Board of Supervisors, plan to come up with recommendations for improving trash collection. These recommendations will be forwarded to the board for consideration.

    Any requirement for mandatory pick-up will come with an opt-out provision, public works officials said. This would allow property owners who provide evidence of legal disposal, such as a landfill receipt, to forego service.

    Also, a new ordinance could make trash service mandatory in some places, such as the more urban areas, and keep it optional in other places, officials noted.

    Yang said she is tired of seeing dumping near her home but doesn't know what to do about it. Her family has trash service, and she thinks mandatory trash pick-up is a good idea: "It doesn't hurt to pay a little to keep your neighborhood clean."

    Inland Valley Bulletin: City of Pomona facing tough budget decisions

    Pomona council will have to deal with bleak financial future in upcoming budget discussions

    By Monica Rodriguez, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

    POMONA - The city isn't through the first half of the fiscal year, but the staff has begun preparing City Council members for possible cuts in their 2012-2013 budget.
    The current budget was assembled without too much struggle as a result of cost-cutting that has taken place in recent years, said City Manager Linda Lowry.
    However, those reductions won't be enough as some costs continue to rise, she said.
    That means "we need to start planning," Lowry said.
    During the 2010-2011 budget year Pomona was able to hold down expenses, but the city also saw some of its revenue sources decrease, Finance Director Paula Chamberlain told City Council members recently.
    Using unaudited figures that could change slightly, Chamberlain told council members during the fiscal year that ended in June that the city received about $79 million in revenue, about $1.7 million below what had been expected.
    The city had about $80 million in expenses, she said.
    Among the areas where the city failed to meet revenue projections was in development- related fees.
    Projections called for $3 million to come into city coffers in the form of building permits, plan check fees, development taxes and other development fees, but only about $2 million was generated, Chamberlain said.
    Property taxes declined to $26.2 million in 2010-2011 compared with the $27 million the city received in 2006-2007 - the city's highest revenue-generating year.
    In that 2006-2007 budget year the city also received $19.1 million in sales taxes well above the near $13 million for the last fiscal year.
    The loss is the result of large sales tax producers such as Circuit City, Toy `R' Us and auto dealerships, Chamberlain said.
    But even those businesses that have managed to survive up to this point have taken dramatic hits that translate into less sales tax for the city, Lowry said.
    At this point the city's top five sources of the sales tax are service stations, wholesale building materials sales, restaurants, food markets and retail building materials sales.
    When it comes to expenditures by category the largest was personnel which took up 48 percent of the general fund, followed by the city's fire contract which took up another 28 percent.
    If the expenses are broken up by department the highest cost is the Police Department which had about $38 million in expenses and fire costs totaled about $24 million.
    The city has cut nearly 200 employees in the last three years.
    In the 2007-2008 budget year the city had 777 employees, and it currently has 581, Chamberlain said.
    The city has negotiated with the city's labor groups to bring down employee-related costs and more will be needed, Lowry said.
    "I think we're at a point where we have to make more service reductions. We're not going to balance need by making more benefit reductions for employees," she said.
    While some say bringing revenue-generating businesses is a solution to the city's problems, that is not something that will happen overnight, Lowry said.
    Developers come to the city on a regular basis but they are looking for financial assistance in carrying out projects. At this stage there is little the city can offer other than moving them quickly through the permitting process.
    "The only saving grace is every other city is experiencing the same thing," Lowry said.
    As part of the steps leading to next fiscal year's budget the city must look at its expenses, she said.
    "Some (departments) can't cut anymore without turning off the switch," Lowry said.
    Among the things the city must carefully review is its fire services contract.
    Lowry said she has spoken with Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby who has indicated the city has more stations compared with unincorporated areas of the county.
    Lowry said she plans to arrange a visit that would bring Osby and the City Council together to discuss the fire services contract and ways of reducing costs.
    "Deferred maintenance is part of future discussions," she said.
    Because of the fiscal crisis the city has put off maintenance in various areas including streets and tree trimming. Plus the city needs to address storm drain and flooding problems in parts of south Pomona.
    In the future the city may also need to consider establishing a lighting assessment district, which would require voters' approval.
    "It's not necessarily going to help us in the general fund," she said. "But it helps with the deferred maintenance."
    Councilman Steve Atchley said the situation is such that the council will have to make difficult decisions.
    "We have cut about as far as we can go," he said.
    The city may also have to accept proposals for projects it may not have accepted in the past.
    "We're going to have to take on less than ideal projects," he said.
    The fire contract is one that will require a thoughtful discussion during a December goal-setting session, Atchley said.
    How much help will be able to come in the future from the city's redevelopment agency is still questionable, Lowry said.
    If redevelopment agencies across the state remain in place, Councilwoman Cristina Carrizosa would like to have Pomona's redevelopment agency focus attention on drawing businesses.
    "We can then focus and direct the few funds we have on zones that need help," Carrizosa said.
    Redevelopment agency funds could be directed to projects that could generate some job opportunities, she said.

    It may be possible to bring smaller businesses related to manufacturing and industry that will provide jobs to residents and revenue for the city, Carrizosa said.

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    Special to the Sacramento Bee: Latino voters increase but not their clout

    Latino numbers are up; why isn't their clout?

    Published: Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
    © Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.
    Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor and nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. He wrote this article for The Bee.

    Latinos in the United States have been betting on the numbers – their numbers.
    In the last three decades, I've heard politicos, academics, activists and others boast that a swelling population would eventually bring the Latino community power and respect.

    They include President Barack Obama, who just last month told a group of Latino online journalists gathered at the White House that he was confident that he'd see a competitive Hispanic candidate running for president during his lifetime.

    "Just look at the demographics," Obama said. "With numbers comes political power."

    Not necessarily, Mr. President.

    The assumption has been that, at some point, the Latino population would become so large and its influence on everything from business to sports to food to pop culture would be so profound that it would be impossible to ignore.

    However, Latinos have learned that – given a continued scarcity in law, business, media, academia, publishing, entertainment and other professions – nothing is impossible. If someone wants to ignore you, they will. And in a country that still defines racial and ethnic relations in terms of black and white, those who fit into neither category are often ignored.

    In the case of Latinos, this is no easy trick. The 2010 census revealed that there are 50 million Latinos living in the United States, spread throughout all 50 states. They constitute 16 percent of the U.S. population and account for more than half of the growth of the country's total population over the last 10 years.

    Their percentage of the U.S. electorate is not as high, owing to the fact that it is a young population and one that includes a large number of legal residents who are not U.S. citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 131 million people who voted in 2008, about 7.4 percent were Hispanic.

    In a state like California, the figure is a lot higher; in 2010, Latinos made up about 16 percent of the electorate.

    Latinos are everywhere – except in the corridors of power. True, there have now been four Latino speakers of the California Assembly. Yet it's been nearly impossible for Latino candidates to be elected statewide; there are years when, depending on what anti-immigrant measure is on the ballot, it may be a liability to be named Gonzales or Martinez or Rodriguez.

    It's also difficult for Latinos to ascend to Congress. Those who set their sights on Washington often find themselves with an impossible choice: try to get elected in a largely white, mostly Republican district or try to represent a largely Latino one that is held by a white Democrat who isn't interested in moving on.

    Breakthroughs in the 1980s

    Mind you, Hispanic servicemen had already racked up scores of medals in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There had already been a Hernandez v. Texas, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that recognized that the 14th Amendment extended to Mexican Americans. There had already been a United Farm Workers union, a Cesar Chavez and a Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

    Those victories provided some of the bricks that laid the foundation for major breakthroughs in the 1980s.
    Cisneros was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1981, Federico Peña was elected mayor of Denver in 1983 and Xavier Suarez was elected mayor of Miami in 1985. Lauro Cavazos became the first Latino Cabinet member when President Ronald Reagan appointed him education secretary in 1988.

    Today, the notion of a Hispanic decade seems almost quaint. What's a measly 10 years? With Latinos expected to account for as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, it's time to think in terms of the Century of the Hispanic.

    Roller coaster ride ahead

    Political parties go through the motions of wooing Latino voters. Yet, GOP presidential candidates, in discussing immigration, treat Latinos like piñatas.

    And Obama, who won more than two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, breaks his promise to tackle immigration reform and deports more than 1 million people, most of them to Mexico and Latin America.

    Recently, in Albuquerque, I listened as a group of middle-aged Latinos commented on the strange phenomenon of feeling both powerful and powerless.

    One woman, Maria Estela de Rios, president of an Albuquerque-based government contracting company called Orion International Technologies, lamented, "I always thought that, at this point in life, I'd have earned more respect and have more influence over my world. It feels like I have less."

    Even in the California Legislature, with 16 Latinos in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate, those lawmakers haven't been able to use their numbers to improve the Latino condition in the state. Moreover, even if those numbers were to double someday, it's likely that, for most Latinos, their lives wouldn't be impacted one way or another.

    A deeper look at the issues

    So I called two of the deeper thinkers on the subject, with experience in politics and activism. Both live in Sacramento.

    Political strategist Arnold Torres insists that much of the blame goes to Latinos themselves, who, in the political context, continue to cast themselves as powerless and allow others to define their agenda and goals.
    He says that Latinos put too much emphasis on the size of their population and what they think is due them because of it, and not enough on broadening their appeal by coming up with ideas and solving problems.

    For Torres, achieving power starts with charting out where you want to go, knowing why you want to go there, and being absolutely clear on how you're going to get there.

    "It's not enough anymore to run for office because we have the numbers and this sense of manifest destiny," he told me. "We never shook the mentality that we ought to run because it's our turn, but everyone else is moving on or digging in to resist having to give up anything. We need to be ahead of the curve, but we're behind – way behind."

    So how do Latinos catch up? "We need to stop thinking like the victim," Torres said. "We are the victim, but we have to stop thinking like one. We have to think like the problem solvers. We need to come up with ideas, and not just treat everyone else like they created this problem and now they have to redress those grievances."

    Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, doesn't disagree that many of the obstacles facing Latinos are self-generated. But the man whom CNN called "the leader of the Hispanic evangelical movement" also thinks that much of it has to do with external factors that the community can't control.

    Such as where many of these people come from.

    "There's a historical limitation to look beyond the previous narrative of where we come from – authoritarian regimes, countries where democracy was a farce," Rodriguez told me. "There is still a great amount of angst, doubt and skepticism. We are a politically agnostic community. We really have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as viable, sustainable and legitimate democracy where the vote actually counts."

    Or their educational attainment.

    "We have not been educated to the degree that we need to be educated to make decisions as it pertains to our electoral responsibility," he said. "That educational disparity is, in my opinion, the No. 1 deterrent to adequate, mature, viable and sustainable electoral, political and civic participation."

    This is a major point. For as long as anyone has been keeping score, Latinos have listed education as a top issue. The disparity that Rodriguez talks about begins at the K-12 level, where Latino parents who want their kids yanked out of bilingual education have to go to war with an ingrained bilingual education establishment that needs warm bodies in classrooms to continue to justify the program.

    Students face more battles

    Rodriguez's argument is that this can't help but affect the political system. If people aren't taught about the importance of democracy, they may be less likely to participate in it.

    As for the remedy, Rodriguez insists that it starts with shaking up Latinos and getting them in the game.
    "We need voices to rise up in the community and say that apathy is not an option, complacency is not an option, standing on the sidelines is not an option," he said.

    No, it's not. This is no small tribe. According to estimates by the Census Bureau, Latinos will likely represent 30 percent of the population by 2050.

    According to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center and the National Council of La Raza, every month, another 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 and thus become eligible to vote. Of course, there is no way to know how many of those people will register to vote, and how many of them will someday cast ballots. But the fuse is lit.

    The obstacles to achieving greater political power are real and formidable, but they can be overcome. Once that happens, the opportunities for Latinos to contribute – or rather, continue to contribute – to this country are endless.

    Why not? That's the American way.

    For students in the mainstream, there are more battles to fight as powerful teachers unions that resist demands for greater accountability put their interests ahead of the interest of Latino parents and their parents. And in college, it's proved easier for state colleges to recruit Latino students than to retain them. At every stage of the educational process, Latinos get the short end of the stick. I wanted to know why Latinos – in California and around the country – haven't been able to cash in their demographic prominence for political power and how to change that reality. In the decades to come, Hispanics will likely experience a roller coaster mixture of obstacles and opportunities, setbacks and successes. For America's largest minority, this is the Dickensian Era – the best of the times, the worst of times. This can't be what Henry Cisneros had in mind when, in the 1980s, the then-mayor of San Antonio helped convene a gathering of Latino leaders drawn from the worlds of business, politics, and nonprofit organizations. The assembled baptized the 1980s "The Decade of the Hispanic."

    Fresno Bee: Medi-Cal cuts will hurt core services for poor Californians

    Medi-Cal cuts could snip safety net for poor

    Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 | 10:27 PM

    California got federal permission last week to cut Medi-Cal payments, a decision that doctors and pharmacists say will make it harder for thousands of low-income residents in the central San Joaquin Valley to get care.

    The Obama administration's decision to allow a 10% cut in reimbursements to doctors, pharmacists and hospitals could save the cash-strapped state millions.
    State officials say they were careful to preserve access to care. But health-care providers disagree, saying

    California's reimbursements already are the lowest, and payment reductions will unravel an already torn safety net for the poor. Impoverished and rural areas, such as in the Valley, would suffer the most, they say.

    "We are most worried about our rural pharmacists because they serve a higher proportion of Medi-Cal patients. And they do not have the large corporate structure to spread out those costs," said Jon Roth, chief executive officer of the California Pharmacists Association.

    Roth said Friday he had fielded at least 25 calls from pharmacists in the state. Many told him they would have to close their doors or stop seeing Medi-Cal patients, he said.

    About 637,000 Valley residents rely on Medi-Cal, the state's version of Medicaid, for their health care. Often, Medi-Cal is the biggest insurer. In Tulare County, for example, more than 35% are enrolled, and in Fresno County, more than 30% are Medi-Cal recipients.

    In Firebaugh, many of Dr. Oscar Sablan's patients have Medi-Cal. With provider pay cuts, appointments for patients who need care from specialists will be harder to get, he said. "I think this is going to be the last straw for the different sub-specialists to accept Medi-Cal referrals from primary-care physicians," he said.

    The cuts most certainly will be challenged in court. Health-care providers have been successful at blocking rate reductions. And a challenge to pay cuts in 2008 and 2009 is before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case will decide if medical professionals have a right to sue under the Constitution.

    A Supreme Court decision, however, isn't expected before spring. In the meantime, providers such as the California Medical Association say litigation may be the only option to stop the new cuts.

    The state said it's confident the latest cuts will stand up in court.

    "We don't see any reason why a court would enjoin or prevent us from implementing reductions that have followed all federal rules," said Toby Douglas, director of the California Department of Health Care Services.
    The state looked at availability to providers by speciality type and geography, Douglas said. "We determined where we could make reductions and where it was not advisable to make reductions," he said.

    The department also plans to monitor access, Douglas said. If access drops, the state could take steps to rectify it, including modifying the payment reductions or eliminating the cuts, he said.

    But health officials in poverty-stricken counties with doctor shortages say provider cuts will push more people into hospital emergency departments.

    As people have lost jobs in the sputtering economy, Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia has seen more people with Medi-Cal or no insurance, said Lindsay Mann, chief executive officer at Kaweah Delta Health Care District. His hospital's charity-care burden (care delivered without reimbursement) will be $29 million, Mann said. In 2008, it was $13 million.

    The doctor provider cuts have Mann worried. Because fewer doctors will accept Medi-Cal, more patients will show up at Kaweah Delta's emergency department. And every time the hospital admits a Medi-Cal emergency patient, it has to subsidize the care by 8%, he said.

    The hospital's already busy emergency department also will be busier, making it harder to get people in and out in a timely manner.

    The emergency department had 82,000 patients visit last year, Mann said. "I anticipate we'll see another 2,400 visits per year in the emergency department based on the reductions."

    Douglas of state Health Services said decisions to reduce provider payments were made carefully. The state withdrew a request to cut provider payments for children's and home health care because of concerns about the affect on access, he said.

    California had estimated Medi-Cal payment cuts would save the state's general fund $623 million. With children and home health services carved out, it will be less than that, Douglas said. The state should have a new estimate soon, he said.

    The decision to not cut provider rates for children and home health services is commendable, said Norma Forbes, executive director of Fresno Healthy Community Access Partners, a non-profit organization working to improve health access in the Valley.

    But Forbes said Valley residents will have a harder time finding doctors willing to see them.

    "In reality, access to Medi-Cal providers in the communities in the Valley most likely will decline. It's inadequate currently, and this will make it worse."


    LA Times: Southern California farm, city water deal stuck in litigation

    Massive California farm-to-city water deal snared in litigation

    The 2003 agreement between the rural Imperial Valley and heavily urbanized San Diego County was billed as a win-win. But a case of sellers' remorse has set in, with the Salton Sea's fate a key issue.

    Imperial Valley
    Farm hands check the watering system as a field is prepared for broccoli planting in the Imperial Valley. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times / October 21, 2011)

    A 2003 water pact between the Imperial Valley and San Diego County was supposed to be good for both parties, and for California.

    But the agreement — billed as the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation — is snared in litigation and the outcome is uncertain. No sooner had the pact been signed than it came under attack by environmentalists, farmers and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.

    One major point of contention is that the Salton Sea could become saltier and shrink if farmers reduce agricultural runoff into the sea because water is being sold to San Diego County. If the sea recedes further and becomes more saline, it could lead to massive fish die-offs, endanger migratory fowl and result in toxic dust storms.

    The state Legislature, to help finalize the water deal, had promised to help fund restoration of the sea, but budget constraints have made that impossible.

    Unless the state follows through on that promise, officials in San Diego and the Imperial Valley worry that the water deal could be struck down by the courts. If that happens, Southern California may be forced to seek more water from Northern California — the most incendiary issue in the state's historic water wars.

    Last year a Sacramento judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to sign an open-ended contract to save the Salton Sea, which could cost billions. An appeals court is set to hear arguments Nov. 21.

    But even if the ruling is overturned, the water deal remains in jeopardy, officials said.

    Some are concerned that another round of court action is likely to center on the state's refusal or inability to restore the Salton Sea, which would compound its environmental problems if water sales continue.

    The deal "is in peril because the state failed to fulfill its obligation," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

    The 75-year pact allows the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District to transfer some of its mammoth share of the Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority via the Colorado Aqueduct owned by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

    After the judge ruled against the water deal, a stay allowed water sales to continue until all legal issues are resolved. So San Diego County continues to get its water, and Imperial County continues to get its money.

    A third of the Imperial Irrigation District's water operations budget, which pays for maintaining the All-American Canal and hundreds of miles of branch waterways and pumping stations, comes from water payments made by San Diego.

    More than a third of the water that San Diego distributes to local agencies comes from the water transfer agreement and two related agreements. Those water sales are slated to increase over the years.

    How San Diego would replace Imperial's water and how Imperial would replace San Diego's payments if the deal is struck down is unclear. Each has become dependent on the other.

    In Imperial County, where agriculture is the dominant industry and the water pact has always been controversial, a major case of sellers' remorse has set in.

    The Imperial Irrigation District governing board approved the deal on a 3-2 vote after years of arm-twisting by the federal government, including a threat by the Department of the Interior to take the water for free unless the district agreed to sell some of it to San Diego.

    None of the three board members who voted in favor of the deal are still in office.

    The board member who, after months of indecision, provided the swing vote was defeated for reelection by John Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation Imperial Valley farmer who ran on an anti-water-deal platform.

    Menvielle has now quit active farming to concentrate on getting a better deal for the Imperial Valley and guarding against outside pressures that he fears could bankrupt local farmers. He still seethes over the way the federal government forced the district to let fields lie fallow so water could be shifted to San Diego.
    "Basically there was a gun held to our head," he said. "We got hoodwinked into this thing."

    Like many farmers, he's worried that the state or federal government will eventually demand that the Imperial Valley share more of the financial burden for saving the Salton Sea.

    "The 18 million people on the coast could care less if the Imperial Valley dries up — that way they could get the water for free," he said.

    The San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District have petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to lift a requirement that water be sent directly into the Salton Sea. That requirement, the agencies argued, was meant only to "buy time" until the state's plan for the Salton Sea was implemented.

    Out of 480,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley, about 5,800 are being fallowed to save water to sell to San Diego; the district has had no trouble finding farmers willing to fallow land in exchange for per-acre payments. In coming years, fallowing is set to increase to nearly 30,000 acres.

    Under the deal, fallowing would continue for another decade. After that, water will be saved through installation of expensive water-conservation equipment; Menvielle and others worry that the cost of that equipment will be shifted to the farmers.

    To look for its own Plan B in the event the water deal dies, the Imperial board has hired one of the nation's top water lawyers, Charles DuMars, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico law school.

    Even by the standards of other Western water cases, DuMars said, the dispute over the Imperial district's share of the Colorado River is complex in its details and intense in its passions.

    Imperial Valley's share of the river — greater than that of any other agency or state that uses the river — comes from a principle in water law called "first in time, first in right."

    Farmers in the valley were pulling water from the Colorado in the early 1900s — long before the rise of modern Los Angeles and San Diego and the thirsty suburbs in between.

    "It's more than just water, it's cultural," DuMars said of the dispute. "To most people in Southern California, water is something that comes out of the tap. In the Imperial Valley, it's the lifeblood of the people."

    Associated Press: CA cities take pension reform directly to the balot

    Calif. cities take pension reform to the ballot

    Published: Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 - 8:39 am
    Copyright 2011 . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
    San Francisco's public pension system took a beating during the recession, which has left it carrying a hefty unfunded liability for its 26,000 current and 28,000 retired employees. The city's pension obligation is growing by $100 million a year, leaving less funding for police and fire protection, park maintenance and health services for the needy.

    Unable to keep up, San Francisco is among several California cities asking voters to help tackle the public pension problem - which is now one of the biggest causes of municipal budget shortfalls.

    In San Diego, city leaders and reform advocates recently submitted more than enough signatures to qualify an initiative to change the city's charter on pension calculations. If it qualifies, it would appear on the June ballot.
    And San Jose's mayor has set a goal of placing retirement reform before voters in a March special election; labor groups are offering a compromise plan.

    Local governments are increasingly turning to voters for help to rein in the cost of public pensions as the state continues to wrestle with the issue. Talks stalled earlier this year between Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican lawmakers after they failed to reach a compromise on tax extensions. Brown failed to generate support for his proposed changes and is now offering a plan to raise the retirement age to align with Social Security and move new state workers to a hybrid system where guaranteed benefits are combined with a 401(k)-style plan.

    Pension reformers say voters support efforts to roll back enhanced retirement benefits that were handed out during economic boom years. It was a time when pension funds appeared so flush that some cities stopped asking employees to pay into their retirement programs.

    As pension costs shoot up, taxpayers have been asking why they are on the hook to pay guaranteed lifetime pension and health care benefits for public employees as defined-benefit pensions have all but disappeared from the private sector, replaced by 401(k) plans that have tanked in value.

    "When you look at the math, you realize there's no way that cities and counties can keep up with the escalating pension costs," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has made pension reform his campaign centerpiece for mayor.

    But any proposal to change retirement benefits for current and retired public employees will almost certainly invite legal challenges from unions that represent police officers, firefighters, librarians and city hall workers.

    Robert Bezemek, an Oakland union attorney who represents retired public employees, says less generous benefits are easy to negotiate for new hires but the courts have been fairly consistent about maintaining existing retirement contracts because employees have vested rights. He said an employer, whether it's a city or state government, must prove financial hardship and the courts often recommend replacing benefits with something of similar value.

    "When a promise has been made, it has to be kept," Bezemek said.

    For example, the California Supreme Court this month declined to hear a challenge from Orange County, which lost its effort to roll back enhanced pension benefits for sheriff's deputies.

    But how clear do those promises have to be? Local governments struggling with unfunded pension liabilities are closely watching another case the state's high court heard out of Orange County.

    The county argues that it was within its right to lower health care costs by separating retirees from current employees, which increased retirees' premiums. The Retired Employees Association of Orange County argues retired employees have a contract right to be pooled with current employees, which lowers their costs because they are pooled with younger and healthier workers.

    The state requires public employers to negotiate in good faith with their employees under the Meyers-Milias Brown Act. Even if a union agrees to concessions, cities often have charters that dictate how retirement benefits are accrued and handed out. Those kinds of changes require voters to weigh in, driving a string of local ballot measures.

    Voters in Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and Redding recently approved measures aimed at containing their pension costs. This November, San Francisco voters will have their pick between two pension proposals.
    San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and a broad coalition of labor and business groups have put forth Proposition C, which could save the city as much as $1.3 billion over 10 years. Adachi, the public defender, collected enough signatures for Proposition D, which is estimated to save as much as $1.7 billion over that same period.

    While there are many differences between the competing measures, both share a similar goal: They require current city workers to contribute a larger portion of their salaries now to pay for their golden years.
    Lee said unlike most measures, labor backed Proposition C knowing that it could serve as a model for sustaining public pensions without bankrupting municipal governments.

    "We had to come to consensus here very quickly because the cost increases on the pension and health care side was going to hurt the very employees we were negotiating with - and they knew that," the mayor said.
    San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, a mayoral candidate who is making that city's initiative his campaign centerpiece, has crafted one of the most aggressive plans in the state. His initiative not only would transition new hires to defined contribution, or 401(k), plans, but also "picks the lock" of existing pensions by increasing the amount city employees must contribute to their own plans and freezing the salaries used to calculate their pension benefits for five years, possibly longer.

    "You see it happening up and down California," DeMaio said. "The reality has sunk in that government, lifelong guaranteed pensions are not sustainable."

    Advocates for pension reform, such as San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, have warned that without more concessions from current employees, city services will continue to be devastated. Without savings, the city would have to fill the deficit by closing all branch libraries and community centers, making further cuts to police and firefighters, and eliminating park rangers. Reed says San Jose would not be able to continue its senior nutrition program or maintain traffic signs and street lights.

    Several bargaining groups representing San Jose police officers, firefighters, architects and engineers, middle managers and maintenance supervisors submitted pension reform plans they said would net the city $467 million in pension savings. They are hoping a compromise will keep the mayor from heading to the ballot in 2012 but Reed is seeking $882 million in savings by increasing employee contributions, reducing benefits and raising the retirement age.

    George Beattie, a 51-year-old San Jose police lieutenant who is close to retirement after 23 years of service, says he worries Reed is contemplating severe rollbacks, such as raising the retirement age for working police officers to age 60, which will violate workers' rights and invite costly legal challenges. He said the police association already has agreed to concessions such as higher pension and health care contributions.

    Beattie, who estimated he is on track to earn 70 percent of his $155,000 annual salary in retirement, said voters and elected officials might be worried about the bottom line, but if city officials don't negotiate with employees, they will ultimately drive away qualified men and women, jeopardizing the city's safety and well-being.

    "You're going to make a bad situation worse," he said.

    The San Jose city council has until early December to vote whether to place the mayor's proposed charter change on the March ballot.