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Officials talk issues over tacos
Chamber hosts Local Government Night at Alfonsos
Local Government Night
Five government officials appeared at the Oct. 13 Government Night at Alfonsos Mexican Restaurant to speak about issues of concern. Left to right are Congressman Jeff Denham, state Assemblyman Adam Gray, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, state Senator Anthony Cannella and Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Water, immigration and transportation dominated the discussion as a roomful of Ceres residents gathered over tacos at Alfonso's Mexican Restaurant for Local Government Night.

The Tuesday evening, Oct. 13 Chamber of Commerce event included a visit from Congressman Jeff Denham, state Senator Anthony Cannella, state Assemblyman Adam Gray, county Supervisor Jim DeMartini and Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. The event was emceed by Eric Ingwerson, who added his brand of humor to the evening when he asked someone to lock the door in noting the captive collection of high-profiled government leaders.

"The biggest thing that we are facing is the security of our country," said Denham, "making sure that we have got a strong military, strength that will show the rest of the countries that we are a force to be reckoned with, that we have a military that's ready and capable and a country that takes care of its veterans."

The Turlock Republican also talked about homeland security, mentioning how he plugged for funding for the SAFER grant program, which benefited Ceres by the awarding of a $1.2 million grant for additional firefighters.

Denham said the Congress needs to address the immigration system to "strengthen our economy."

His thoughts turned to the water shortage.

"There's no bigger issue that we face right now than making sure we have a reliable conveyance system and reliable storage for our water supply," said Denham. The Valley economy will continue to suffer until there are dependable water systems in place, he said.

"It's beyond a four-year drought. This is planning for the future."

The federal government, said Denham, needs to "do its job" by authorizing projects to raise the Shasta Dam, build the Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, build Temperance Flats Dam above Friant and a private dam at Los Vaqueros Reservoir. Since Shasta is a federal project, Denham said it should be a top priority for Congress. "It's our biggest bang for our buck. It is the one that our Senate colleagues are most willing to address."

Denham said he will not support another federal water bill that does not include significant new water storage facilities in California.

Senator Cannella commented on how much the state has accomplished this year, noting the establishment of a Rainy Day Fund and passage of a water bill. He said the Valley is represented by a group that doesn't pay attention to party affiliation and called Gray one of his closest allies.

However, the state has not done anything to develop a plan to catch up with transportation needs and the funding gap, said the Ceres Republican.

"We all drive our roads and we haven't done nearly enough to maintain our roads," said Cannella. "We've got to figure out a way to get more money flowing to transportation that's not necessarily in new taxes; there's a lot of money in the state of California that we can redirect, but then come up with a plan to deal with. The reality is that we just can't keep building roads. We've got to invest in other areas as well and mass transit is one that I'm very much focused on."

Cannella explained that there are plans to bring the ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) passenger train service to Merced at a cost of $550 million with the possibility of a Ceres station in downtown. Access to high-paying jobs in the Bay Area without the need to travel by private vehicles is "a game changer for us."

Cannella said "for far too long we've been left out when it comes to transportation funding ... largely we've been ignored and I think that's going to change."

He said he will not vote for any transportation measure unless it has a funding commitment for the ACE extension and the Ceres station. For that he was applauded.

Passage of the water bond, Cannella offered, was the first step of many in getting California caught up to water. The state bond sets aside $2.7 billion for water storage. Because the California Water Commission is in control of that money, Cannella said "we're working very hard ... I want to build Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat," while acknowledging there is a push to build smaller projects. The commission won't make a decision for another year.

Assemblyman Gray said the Valley is lucky to have legislators that "put our community first."

He, too, has been advocating for more water storage and the promise of the water bond.

"We're excited that the federal government is looking to make a similar investment," said Gray, who noted how California failed over a half century to invest in infrastructure "and we've got to catch up."

"Our population has doubled while we've seen a one percent increase in water storage," said Gray. "We're in trouble in the drought because we didn't keep up with the population and didn't make the investments."

DeMartini took his turn to explain that Stanislaus County operates with 4,500 employees in 26 departments -of which Social Services spends the most - on a $1.1 billion budget. He elaborated on the county's new push for prevention as a way of saving costs.

"We're looking at what causes homelessness, what causes people to go to jail, drug addiction, emergency room visits and we're really working on a policy that essentially, when it's done, will be to strengthen families," said DeMartini. "We know this is probably the root cause of incarcerations, emergency room visits and homelessness."

DeMartini said the county has devoted $1 million to be spent over 10 years on prevention. He admits that it's a "pretty tall order."

On water, the county passed an ordinance that prevents the sale of groundwater taken from Stanislaus County aquifers and piping it out of the county.

The biggest threat to the local water picture, DeMartini said, is if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) calls for increased releases to enhance fish habitat downstream.

"It makes very little sense to suspend billions of dollars on new storage facilities when the ones that we have already may be forced to dump water down the river supposedly for habitat for fish," said DeMartini, who is a farmer southwest of Ceres. Policies of the State Water Resources Board and FERC threaten the economy of the Valley, he said.

"If we have to release 35 to 60 percent of the water out of the Don Pedro, Exchequer and New Melones dams, those reservoirs ... will never operate again. They will be down to near dry at the end of every year, and that is the direction that may be coming out of the Water Resources Board."

Mayor Vierra talked about the historic agreement for the cities of Ceres, Modesto and Turlock to buy raw water from Turlock Irrigation District to guarantee a good clean source of water from the Tuolumne River. A joint powers authority will build a treatment facility near Fox Grove and pipe the water to homes in those cities which are now largely dependent on ground water.

"It was a 27-year in the making process and we were finally able to get that done," said Vierra of the raw water agreement.

He noted that the city is planning for a new Mitchell/Service/99 interchange.

Vierra said he is excited about Ceres being included in the environmental review process for the ACE train extension.

The mayor mentioned the city recently embarking on a general plan update thorough a $1 million contract. The general plan - which was last updated in 1997 - will determine how Ceres should develop for 30 years into the future and include public input.

The mayor spoke on economic development, mentioning how Ross Dress for Less is coming into Ceres in the old Staples building, and how the Save Mart Shopping Center is scheduled to be remodeled. Mitchell Ranch and the Walmart Supercenter could be set for development to build 300,000 square feet of new retail space at the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads next year.

Those in attendance had a chance to ask questions. Len Shepherd asked for the state legislators for their feelings on "the train to nowhere," his reference to high-speed rail. Gray said he supported high-speed rail, saying he hopes "it goes somewhere at some point."

"My philosophy is the private sector creates jobs," said Gray. "Government creates infrastructure."

Cannella said he has problems with high-speed rail because the business plan lacks clarity but said it's a done deal. His focus, he said, is to make sure the costs "don't go seven times over like the Bay Bridge."

Craig Simmons drove up from Los Angeles to speak as a candidate for the California High Speed Rail Commission CEO. He complained that he cannot get an audience with Gov. Brown to present his idea of a magnetic levitation high-speed rail system, making rail cars from 4,000 mothballed airplanes.

"We can build maglev guideways up over existing railroad tracks, freeways, river beds, whatever you want," said Simmons.

Cannella invited Simmons to a Transportation Committee meeting on Friday but doubted Simmons would get a chance to present his plan.

Simmons also asked why the state and federal government haven't considered desalinization plants. Denham explained that Congress wants to include funding for desalinization, which is expensive. He said plants are opening up in Carlsbad and in Santa Barbara.

"It is time to bring back desalinization back to certain areas of the state," said Denham. "In certain areas of this state it does make sense and needs to be part of our overall water solution."

Ceres Police Officer Randy Moore asked about thoughts on the Governor's Pension Act of 2016 and the Voter Empowerment Act of 2016. Gray said it's important that the state honor commitments to public safety personnel and that he is opposed to efforts to relax those commitments.

Ceres real estate agent Renee Ledbetter asked if Gray or Cannella would consider a bill that would require foreclosures to be handled by the escrow and title companies in their county because banks mandated the use of Southern California companies.

This reporter asked Gray and Cannella about their vote on a bill signed into law by Gov. Brown that automatically signs up drivers licensees as state voters. They were also asked about what safeguards are in place to ensure that illegal aliens - now able to get a license without fear of being deported - are can't vote. Gray said he supported the legislation to help increase voter participation but was unable to recall the safeguards against illegal aliens assuming the right of American citizens to vote. Cannella said he didn't support the bill out of concerns about those safeguards. He added that Secretary of State Alex Padilla showed him some "pretty interesting things to combat voter fraud."

Ceres tow company owner Duane Thompson expressed concern about minimum wage increases to $15 an hour on raising the prices of goods and services. He asked how lawmakers would vote on a $15 an hour minimum wage. Cannella said the minimum wage will increase to $10 an hour next year. He wants to see the initiative process but that he wouldn't support it. He did say the state is obliged to see that the minimum wages make sense. Gray said he opposed a bill that included a two-step increase coupled with an automatic index for annual increases. Because some regions have a higher cost of living, Gray supports a regional approach.

Denham said Congress will push for a federal minimum wage increase with talk of indexing so that it goes up with inflation but said a national wage will always fall far below the state wage.

"We should watch what's happening in L.A., we should watch what's happening in Seattle and see how many jobs they lose in the process and then actually judge for ourselves what our own minimum wage should be here in the Valley," said Denham.

In answer to a question about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - dubbed Obamacare by many - Denham said it's not working well, especially in the Valley which initially supported it. He said ACA has taken away incentives for doctors in the Valley.

"Not only are we losing doctors still but we are seeing less doctors willing take Medicare, Medicaid," said Denham, "which then means if you've just added more people to the rolls in our Valley to Medicaid but less doctors are actually accepting it, we have less access to care than we did before it was implemented." He said Congress must replace the system or change it.

Gray noted that America always had universal care in hospital emergency rooms. He said the state needs to add a medical school at U.C. Merced to get student physicians in Valley clinics.

"When we have some of the worst physician to patient ratios in the state and country," said Gray, "that's where our focus needs to be ... trying to bring those care providers to the Central Valley."

Cannella changed things around with a bit of mischief when he asked his friend, Mayor Vierra, to explain what the costs of city water service will be when the surface water plant goes on line. Vierra explained those costs are unknown but could be $60 to $70 per month higher, depending on how many cities get involved. Hughson and Keyes will be asked to come onboard.

"As I have told my citizens, what would you be willing to pay for water if you didn't have the ability to get any anymore?" asked Vierra.

Cannella then prompted DeMartini to talk about the recent negative bailout legislation which Cannella, Gray and Cathleen Galgiani helped get passed after 35 years of effort.

The county has had to pay unfairly for over three decades. DeMartini always called it a "negative pay out." He explained that some counties, like San Francisco, keeps 60 percent of its property tax while Stanislaus County kept 11 percent. The county had to pay the state about $3 million per year out of property."

DeMartini said he remembers when Gary Condit was dealing with the issue but the governors always vetoed legislation. He said he is grateful that the local representatives worked together for "the common good."