The limited supplies on water, housing, infrastructure and the abundance of homeless persons roaming the streets in Stanislaus County were among the chief topics discussed by elected officials attending Friday’s Legislative Breakfast. The Ceres Chamber of Commerce sponsored event was held at the Ceres Community Center.
Newly-seated Congressman Josh Harder, D-Turlock, spoke first and said Ceres felt like home since his father, Mark Harder, ran the Ceres Walmart optometry clinic for nearly 20 years.
In office for 13 weeks, Harder said “we’ve been able to do some good things.”
Harder focused first on water, saying the Valley is prone to boom to bust cycles in rainfall.
“We know the next drought is just around the corner and in an area one out of every three jobs is directly or indirectly tied to agriculture, we’ve got to manage our most important resource,” said Harder.
He said he’s just introduced a package of bills that will put money toward “common sense” water storage projects, groundwater recharge and water recycling. The Democrat said when he introduced the package on Wednesday he had the Farm Bureau standing next to the Sierra Club – two groups known to butt heads over water issues.
Harder commented on how the Valley has been experiencing “infrastructure ripoffs” and cited how the 10th Congressional District residents have the second longest commutes in the nation with 17 percent driving three hours round trip to work.
“We have not invested in the infrastructure necessary to solve that problem,” said Harder, despite county voters increasing the sales tax for transportation and the state’s passage of SB 1, the $54 billion gas tax hike.
Harder echoed predecessor Rep. Jeff Denham by citing the poor condition of the Seventh Street Bridge, which makes Modesto having the “worst bridge in the state.” Before his defeat to Harder, Denham worked to secure some of the funding necessary to replace the 1916 bridge. The city of Modesto and Stanislaus County are scheduled to start construction next year.
“We’ve got to make sure that we continue to create more transit options and invest in infrastructure here in the district,” said Harder. He noted that the Valley is growing twice as fast the rest of California “because they can’t afford housing anywhere else.”
When Harder fielded questions from the audience, Ceres businessman Nick Pallios asked his opinion of sanctuary cities. Harder asked Pallios’ opinion and the businessman said ignoring laws bothers him. Harder didn’t provide a direct answer and said the country has an immigration crisis that hasn’t been addressed since 1986.
“The real problem is we are not actually investing in the future of our country and we see it right here and that causes a lot of problems,” said Harder. “Two-thirds of our farmers in California have a labor shortage.” He also mentioned so-called Dreamers, children of parents who broke the law to be in the country and said it’s wrong to ask products of the U.S education system to leave.
“We have a broken immigration process when we go to our farmers and we say hey, you can’t hire any labor outside.”
“I think we need a process we can actually have that provides agricultural labor; that provides a solution; that creates a strong and secure border. We want to make sure our communities are safe and our laws are being upheld just as everybody else and we can actually come to ground on this. This is a solution that needs reform and not through piecemeal changes in law enforcement.”
Harder’s answer prompted congressional candidate Charles Dossett, who also owns a Ceres construction company, to say, “You didn’t answer the question though.”
Harder replied: “Look, that’s a decision that’s made in Sacramento and the reality is is I think our law enforcement agencies are doing the best job that they with the resources they have,” said Harder. He went on to say the blueprint for immigration should be modeled after a bill that failed in 2014 co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham.
“So are you for or against sanctuary cities?” queried Jason Lewis.
Harder ducked again, saying “they’re a symptom of a much larger problem.”
The subject of access to affordable higher education came up and Harder cited how 16 percent of adults in the area have a four-year college degree.
“One of the big focusses of my office is how do we actually create a real route for the middle class … every individual in the Central Valley still has that route to success. We spend $80 billion a year in the federal budget on four-year degrees; we spend less than one million on career and workforce development and yet 84 percent of the people around here don’t have that four-year college degree.”
He went on to say 70 percent of college students are graduating with $30,000 in debt for education. Harder mentioned how he benefited from a federal work study program and cited how the Trump White House is cutting funding for it in half. He said the Pell Grant program needs to keep up with the rising cost of college.
Democrat state Senator Anna Caballero of the 12th District was the next speaker and immediately announced her support of sanctuary state policies “for all the reasons Josh Harder mentioned.” She also said she supports cities which protect illegal aliens from federal immigration authorities.
“The bottom line is we have undocumented workers who have lived here for many, many years, that have contributed to the economy and quite frankly our business community has encouraged them to come in to work here,” said Caballero, a Salinas resident. “So if they’re here I think we need to do everything we can to protect them.”
She said that because California enjoys a strong, vibrant economy, she is “not interested in any more tax increases. I’m looking at us using the resources we have in our budget to start to solve some of the issues we have and one of the biggest issues is water.”
She hinted at opposition to Gov. Newsome’s water tax to help deliver quality water to a million rural Californians who drink contaminated water. She wants to instead set up a water trust fund and generate revenue from that to fix the problem. Caballero said she has also authored a bill to allow non-contiguous water systems to consolidate.
She didn’t elaborate on her statement that the state “has a water storage system that is based on a policy adopted in the 1950s.” She said it seems counterintuitive to release water from reservoirs in the winter for more storage space and then releasing it during a drought.
Caballero said the state is one to two million units short to house residents and could help by building more in the poorest neighborhoods through Opportunity Zones.
“The state of California has way too many regulations and I know start to streamline some of those regulations so that we can be building as soon as possible.”
She spoke of the need to give breaks to encourage healthcare workers into the community, such as given physician assistants more authority to work more independently of doctors. The senator also talked about better educating the workforce to work on more automated farms.
As the state pushes goals for renewable energy, Caballero stated that she’s working with local irrigation districts to get the state to recognize hydroelectric generation as a renewable energy source. For some reason the state doesn’t include it and forces the districts to go out and buy solar and wind energy at a premium when they don’t need it.
“That’s because of state overregulation, quite frankly,” said Caballero.
The bill, SB 386, passed its first committee after a “spirited debate,” mostly because environmental groups are opposed to dams – the source of that water.
Caballero told her crowd that the former Ceres office space occupied by Senator Anthony Cannella is not available and she must seek another one.
Ceres resident Gene Yeakley posed a question about Senate Bill 946, which passed last year to forbid cities from outright bans on street food peddlers, and asked why she thinks it will benefit the state. He expressed his dismay over the bill. Caballero said she supported the bill as it was offered up out of concern for start-up entrepreneurs.
“It is a way that people with very little access to credit can start a small business,” the senator said. “The bill says you have to allow some of that to occur because many communities were just banning it altogether.”
Caballero, a former city official, stated that she is against taco trucks being able to set up with tables and benches, saying “They should rent space.”
“Do you think this is going to benefit the community?” asked Yeakley.
“I think that immigrants, when they come in this country, bring an entrepreneurial spirit and they really want to be able to not only provide for their family, but they’re interested in starting new businesses,” Caballero answered.
Dan Leonard, the CEO of Bronco Winery in Ceres, addressed state overregulation, saying California businesses are “all getting crushed” and asked what she would do about it. She said she needs specifics to work on first. She recounted how she is working with strawberry growers to resolve labor issues relating to how sick leave is paid at peak harvest season.
“We got to get more of the legislators from the cities down here to see how business is done so they’ll have a better understanding and at least listen to us.”
Pallios offered a question to Caballero about the state’s increasing the dollar threshold at which a theft goes from a misdemeanor to a felony. He expressed his dismay that shoplifters are allowed to steal because it’s only a misdemeanor.
She agreed and recalled that one of the changes being a ballot measure passed by the citizens.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini addressed the crowd and followed up on county issues. He weighed in on sanctuary cities and said he is opposed to them.
“I think the federal law should be followed,” said DeMartini. “It’s not the state’s prerogative to just pick and choose which laws to follow. If you are in the country illegally and incarcerated, when your term is up you should be deported to wherever you came from. We shouldn’t have another country’s problems here.”
He stated that the county is in terrific financial condition with $204 million in reserves.
“We have no debt and very few counties could make that statement that they would have $204 million in reserves and zero debt,” said the supervisor, who added the county is conservative and doesn’t throw money away on things that don’t work.
The county has 4,500 employees in 26 departments and a budget of $1.3 billion.
He highlighted the county’s effort to turn the former Crows Landing Naval Air Station near Newman into an industrial park with the potential to create 48,000 jobs.
“Getting through the state regulations to actually get this thing off the ground has really been difficult – and we’re local government,” said DeMartini. “We spent $2 million on the CEQA environmental impact report and about five years to get that thing done.”
He recounted how the county closed the downtown jail and transferred all inmates to the jail in Ceres. The county also built a REACT Center to prepare inmates for re-entry into life and the workforce.
DeMartini spoke about the homeless problem, saying most have serious heroin and meth problems.
“We are spending an absolutely unbelievable $34 million this year on homeless people in this county and a lot of it is not very well spent. We have to redirect this money to help the people who want to be helped. A lot of them really don’t want the help.”
He blamed liberal state policies that “create a homeless lifestyle where it’s easy for them to live out on the street, everything is free. They get food, clothing and medical care – have no responsibility. That’s what really has to change.”
He said government needs to make homeless people accountable with how they live their lives.
“If you get up in the morning every day like I do and go to work every day and don’t develop a drug or alcohol problem, you don’t have to worry about being homeless,” quipped DeMartini.
He was asked his opinion about the Modesto mayor’s suggestion to ship the homeless to the former Memorial Hospital campus in Ceres and DeMartini said “it’s not going to fly.”
Councilman Mike Kline filled in for Mayor Chris Vierra in delivering quick remarks about the city’s recent actions. He spoke about all the extensive pavement preservation projects made possible by Measure L with 20 more projects in the design process. Kline reported on the purchase of four new fire engines, the hiring of new police and fire chiefs, and advancing the surface water treatment plant with securing $30 million in grant money. He said the plant will start construction early next year and operational by 2022.
Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center is expected to break ground at Service and Mitchell roads. The city is in the final design stages for the Service/Mitchell interchange and will seek state and federal funds and expects construction to start in 2022.
Kline also mentioned plans to extend the ACE train line with a station in Ceres.