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Lawmakers address problems, fixes at Chamber breakfast
Pancakes & Politics event held at Howard Training Center
Adam Gray at Chamber
State Assemblyman Adam Gray talks about water storage needs in California during Friday morning's Ceres Chamber of Commerce breakfast. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Water, roads, immigration, frivolous lawsuits against businesses and healthcare were the collective pressing topics on the minds of four area elected officials who spoke at Friday morning's Chamber of Commerce breakfast held at the Howard Training Center in Ceres.

Sponsored by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, the "Pancakes & Politics" event brought together Congressman Jeff Denham, state Assemblyman Adam Gray, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini and Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra who each took turns sharing about problems and remedies they are involved in.

Denham took the opportunity to say that there will be no cuts to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) which would affect the Meals on Wheels program which operates out of the Howard Training Center.

Denham and Gray both shared about remedies to reduce so-called "drive-by" or predatory lawsuits designed to extract money from businesses on the basis of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"Forty percent of the lawsuits in the entire country come out of California," said Denham. "The majority of the ones in California come right out of here in the Central Valley."

He said minority-owned business owners especially are being hit for violations such as curbs or door widths or signs in the parking lot because they don't speak English well or at all or because they are unaware of the law.

Part of the problem is a $4,000 minimum for violations in California. Some attorneys are pressuring violators to settle for thousands of dollars which in some bases put businesses under. An estimated 14 individuals are responsible for half the ADA lawsuits in California, said Davis.

"This is plaguing our community and shutting down a lot of our businesses," said Denham.

The solution, he feels, is offering businesses in violation a chance to remedy changes within 120 days. Denham said proposed changes would offer a "fair even playing field."

Gray said the state has made ADA lawsuit reforms to make it harder for those bringing on lawsuits. His recent attempt created the category of high frequency litigants subject to a judge's pre-filing orders "to not necessarily stop the cases ... (but) slow down the business model of driving by and filing many lawsuits."

Denham discussed the recent setback of Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Healthcare Act, often termed Obamacare. He first spent time refuting reports by some media outlets that he has been hiding from constituents angry over Republican repeal efforts.

"We hold community events. We go out and talk to people. I visit every hospital, every health center. I go out because I want to be a part of the solution."

He also offered to meet anybody who wants to come in.

"Some of these people that are making a lot of noise, writing letters, I've met with several times," said Denham, who also invited all to turn out for a Town Hall meeting set for April 17 in Turlock.

He said Obamacare has led to skyrocketing premiums, loss of doctors, loss of coverage and an overwhelming cost on businesses. Denham said he refused to vote for the last GOP reform because it did not address California's problems.

"While it is great that we have added more people and got them more insurance, and more benefits and more money to be able to see a doctor, they have less access today than they did seven and a half years ago," said the congressman.

He explained that his district has 320,000 residents on Medicaid or Medi-Cal with under 100,000 being added recently. Before the ACA was passed, there were huge waiting times at emergency rooms and few being seen because a doctor shortage and those doctors weren't accepting Medicaid patients. The problems have worsened.

"It's one thing to add benefits, it's one thing to expand Medi-Cal in this state but as long as our governor only reimburses 48th in the nation out of 50 states - and a lot of that occurs in urban areas where it's easier to get doctors - then we still have a healthcare crisis in our community."

Denham said the Valley must attract more physicians with a chance to do that by adding medical schools at universities in the Valley and expand and residency programs at Valley hospitals and healthcare centers.

Gray echoed the call for access to more physicians. He said he continues to work to establish a medical school at UC Merced. A $1 million study exploring the idea is due in May. The report will also look at residency programs and taking existing schools in San Francisco and Davis and bringing students to the Valley.

Other bills expand longer hours at community clinics, especially on smaller west side communities.

"Our physician to patient ratio is just totally unacceptable and it has a huge impact on economic development," said Gray.

Denham said the GOP plan is not dead but needs changes before he will support it in coming month.

Denham commented that the Trump Administration is vastly different than others in that the new president is taking on "five or six things at one time so it creates some challenges and tensions but it also creates a lot of opportunities."

As part of immigration reform, Denham said he continues to get bipartisan support for his ENLIST Act, which would allow qualified undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents through no fault of their own to earn legal status through military service. Denham introduced the ENLIST Act last Congress as HR 1989, where it garnered bipartisan support, and in September, then President-elect Donald Trump expressed support for such a measure.

Border funding is being addressed in the Continuing Resolution funding bill.

Denham also addressed the water storage shortage and flood control, saying "we have the biggest opportunity I've seen in my lifetime to get it fixed." He said the recent wet year has created a state issue and the impetus to develop projects.

"You would think that a five-year drought and what it did to our economy would be enough for us to get big water storage, the 10- to 15-million acre-feet of new water that would actually solve problems for the next 50 or 100 years. That wasn't enough. I believe that the floods we're seeing right now, the shape of Oroville Dam, the shape of our levies now ... it becomes a bigger push. From the standpoint of the Trump Administration, they are looking at this as part of our trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. I want to build roads, I want to fix our ports, I want to expand rail throughout the country but nothing compares to the challenges that we have with water. We've got to get it down right."

Gray and DeMartini addressed what they call the "dangerous" Bay-Delta Plan that would cost water for farming through mandated increased releases from the Don Pedro, New Melones and McClure dams. He said he and other Valley legislators continue to fight the plan.

"The state Water Board continues to want to not only work cooperatively with other entities and build new storage, that 10 to 15 million acre-feet that we need for the state," said Gray, "but continues to want to empty the reservoirs we've already built in a way that's just very damaging and provides no consideration for the impacts on our dangerously impacted groundwater basis."

He asked audience members to visit and sign the petition against the water grab.

Gray said he has introduced a bill to increase capacity for water storage in California 25 percent by the year 2025 and 50 percent by 2050.

"The reality is we've had a one percent increase in water supply at the state level since 1979. That's just outrageous and we've failed to reinvest in the state."

Another bill by Gray reorganizes the Water Board to separate what he sees as conflicts of interest.

"The PUC and Water Board are really the only two entities in state government where you have the judge, jury and prosecution all in one place," said Gray. "So, you're dealing with your permits, you're dealing with enforcement actions and then you're appealing those actions right back to the very people that put them on you. It is absolutely not good government, not due process."

A Westport area farmer, DeMartini said the state board's intended water grab to preserve salmon has serious implications for the region.

"It would absolutely devastate the economy of this Valley, for agriculture, for cities, for jobs," said DeMartini. "The salmon, of course, are just a straw man for taking the water. I think that the effort is really to send the water down south even though they don't want to admit it. The flawed study that was done completely dismisses the economic impact it would have on this area."

The supervisor said the report which justifies taking 40 percent of Don Pedro's water is based on "junk science." He said it doesn't take into account that 90 percent of all salmon hatched in Valley rivers are gobbled up by predatory bass before they reach the ocean. The key to enhancing salmon population is taking care of the bass problem, said DeMartini.

He said MID and TID have enjoyed Tuolumne River water rights since 1880 and the state doesn't have the legal claim it.

"This is just an outright theft of water without any consideration for the consequence of the unimpaired flow target," said DeMartini.

Gray said transportation funding is a hot-button topic in Sacramento. Gray said he hasn't decided to support the tax increase proposal crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrat legislator to "fix our broken transportation system." He said a lot of former funding sources have been diverted to other areas with the gas tax revenue declining because of increased fuel efficiency.

The governor wants to increase gas and diesel taxes as well as add on a new annual fee that averages an additional $50 on top of vehicle registration amounts. Gray said he's concerned that the diesel and gas tax hikes would fall on the backs of Valley residents who drive farther to work. To sell the tax increases, Brown has offered a constitutional amendment to guarantee the money can't be used anywhere but on transportation. Gray, however, specifically wants the Valley to claim more of the tax pie, such as for the ACE train corridor extension through Ceres and onto Merced.

"Too often these transportation dollars ... get stolen and diverted to the general fund, roads don't get built, roads don't get maintained and any package that doesn't guarantee that, I don't think it's going to have my support."

Gray said while nobody wants to see tax increases, he said California will be in "big trouble" if infrastructure isn't built.

DeMartini touted new projects initiated by Stanislaus County, heading off with $32 million investment in converting the Crows Landing Naval Air Base into a business park. The federal government handed over the 1,500-acre site to the county, with the stipulation that one runway will be kept open for emergencies while serving businesses that ship product by air.

"The west side of Stanislaus County has great potential for economic development because of the proximity of Highway 5," commented DeMartini. "In our county we have a lot of people that commute out of the county for jobs and we're trying to reverse that trend. It's always better for a family to work where they live."

The $32 million investment in water, sewer and road improvements, he said, was from money set aside by the county which today boasts zero general fund debt and carries $127 million in reserves.

DeMartini explained how the county has applied for a grant to fund a project designed to recharge groundwater tables. The project would channel some of the flood water flowing in the uncontrolled Orestimba, Dry and Solano creek beds through pipes to be stored in the groundwater basins. All nine cities in the area utilize groundwater for urban use and supplies have dwindled.

"It has great potential to take water that would actually cause flooding ... and put it in the groundwater," the supervisor said.

DeMartini mentioned the county's new 37,000-square-foot Veterans Center which will be dedicated at 4 p.m. on April 21. The center at Coffee and Sylvan roads in Modesto includes a meeting hall, kitchen and a place for veterans to seek out county services. The new facility replaces the one on Downey Avenue. Adult Protective Services will also be housed in the center, which is a converted True Value hardware store.

The last to speak, Mayor Vierra discussed the city's quest to build a surface water treatment plant and delivery system with the city of Turlock. The plant will be constructed near Fox Grove Fishing Access near Hughson and allow the two cities to siphon 30,000 acre-feet of water to be treated and supply drinking water. Water from the river will be comingled with water pumped out of the ground.

"It is really ramping forward," said Vierra.

Monthly water rates will need to be increased to pay for the new system.

"I try to tell all of my citizens while advocating for it ... we all pay $3 to $4 a gallon for milk," said Vierra. "What would you be willing to pay for a gallon of water if you didn't have access to water? I bet it would a lot more than you pay for your cable TV or DirecTV."

He noted that planning is underway for Service/Mitchell Road freeway interchange improvements with the state's first "diverging diamond" circulation design. He said the goal is to start construction in 2020, enabling the city to commercially develop a new shopping area at Ceres' southern end similar to the one at Crossroads in Turlock.

Downtown Ceres, said Vierra, will be transformed this year with $3 million in infrastructure and arch entry features that will aesthetically change the look and feel there.

"We have one of the best ingress and egress from 99 so we need to capitalize on that," said Vierra.
The city plans to brand the Fourth Street shopping district as "Main Street."

As Measure L half-cent sales taxes begin to pour in, Vierra said the public will see street improvements.

He said the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with its Walmart Supercenter is in the design phase with opening in spring 2018.

The Lazy Wheels Mobile Home Park just west of Ceres High School has been acquired, he said, however the city is unsure of what the new owner intends to do with the land after the eyesore has been cleared.

He shared his excitement over the renovation of the Whitmore Plaza Shopping Center and improvements underway to the Save Mart grocery store.

Vierra applauded the addition of the Golden Valley Health Center near the former Memorial Hospital Ceres campus and said it has enhanced the availability of doctors and dentists to Ceres.

The city is about a third of the way through the General Plan Update, Vierra said. It includes a retooling of the 1997 General Plan land use designations. The process will also look at other elements so the city is seeking ongoing public input.

Cannabis remains a hot topic with the city in the throes of adopting regulations on recreational and medicinal marijuana operations in Ceres, he said. The action comes after Californians, in November, voted to legalize recreational use, despite the federal government's restrictions.