Water for farmers and transportation needs are the top priority of area legislators who appeared at Friday's Ceres Chamber of Commerce's annual Legislative Breakfast.
State Senator Anthony Cannella and Assemblyman Adam Gray appeared at the Howard Training Center event, as did Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini and Ceres Vice Mayor Mike Kline. Congressman Jeff Denham did not attend but spoke via video message.
Congressman Denham spoke from his Washington, D.C. office and said water remains his top priority and stated he is addressing the issue of predation since it is prompting the federal government to release more water from area reservoirs. Denham said the U.S. and state Water Resources Control Board are trying to flush 40 percent of the water stored at places like Don Pedro and New Melones reservoirs downstream to keep endangered species of fish are being eaten by non-native species like bass.
"By the administration's own numbers they say that 98 percent of the endangered species are getting eaten on their way out to the ocean, which then causes them to react by pushing more water out to the ocean," said Denham. That means less water for farming.
Denham said he has offered amendments to address predation.
"It's ridiculous that this is what's costing us so much huge amounts of water going out to the ocean," said the congressman.
Secondly, Denham said he is pushing for federal matches to state construction funds for new water storage projects at Sites Reservoir or Temperance Flats. He also said there is an option to raise the levels of New Melones and Exchequer reservoirs for more water storage.
Denham said the U.S. government must set up an infrastructure bank for water storage. Shasta, a federal project, was designed for 5 to 9 million acre-feet more than it currently is holding. He said building a project there could be paid back by users into the fund to finance other storage projects.
He touched on the federal Highway Bill, which will allow California to keep more federal money rather than be a "donor state."
"This will give us an opportunity to upgrade some of our roads," said Denham. He particularly wants to see substandard bridges fixed or replaced. He cited the Seventh Street Bridge between Ceres and Modesto, which is rated a two out of 100.
"It's ridiculous when we have bridges we don't allow school buses to go on because they're unsafe. This allows us to upgrade many of those bridges throughout the Valley and throughout the state."
The Turlock Republican supports a revamping of the process for environmental review for projects which often get bogged down with lawsuits. He said Congress has streamlined the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) to require projects go through the process one time for quicker delivery and at a cheaper cost. Much of the streamlining was accomplished though the Highway Bill, he said.
Denham called for a cooling off period for lawsuits being filed against businesses on account of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many businesses, particularly small businesses owned by minorities, are being hit hard by "drive-by" lawsuits when businesses should be given a time to correct any violations without fear of lawsuit.
Anthony Cannella, now in his sixth year in the state Senate, gave an update on his priorities in Sacramento.
He spoke on the $124 billion state budget proposal for next year, the biggest in the state's history. Cannella said $8.5 billion is because of Prop. 30, which expires in 2019. He believes the economy has strengthened to the point that Prop. 30 will not need to be extended.
The budget adds $2 billion to the Rainy Day fund, bringing its total to $10 billion. The state had no savings at all prior to the recession striking because it was in the habit of spending $1.10 for every dollar it brought in.
Highlights of the state budget proposal were outlined by Cannella:
• Another $4.7 billion for K-12 education, bringing the per pupil spending up to $10,600, which is 50 percent higher than 2011-12;
• $7 billion to pay down state debt in outstanding bonds;
• 4 percent increase to U.C. funding;
• Another $250 million for local jail construction to help counties house inmates formerly housed in state prisons;
• Another $90 million for courts and the judicial system.
Cannella said he has transportation as a top priority, saying "our roads are in very bad shape." Stanislaus County, as well as Merced and San Benito counties, will be seeking the passage of a half-cent sales tax this November.
"I think everybody is starting to see that it's largely we have to take care of ourselves," said Cannella. "There's not a lot of money funneling from the state of California toward transportation. I think we've got about $6 billion a year in ongoing maintenance requirements and the state puts up about $2 million so we have a shortfall that grows every year. And so it's smart for local government to kind of try to fend for themselves a little bit."
He also noted a need for the state to invest in new construction project money as well as mass transit. He supports more funding for the Altamont Corridor Express to be extended to Merced with a station in Ceres. Riders may only travel as far east as Lathrop currently.
Cannella is pushing for the state to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which is often used to stymie projects. While he is not opposed to knowing impacts of projects, he said he's tired of lawsuits being used as a weapon to slow down or halt projects.
"We've got to fix it to where people have their right to voice their concerns about a project but also the project can move forward."
He cited how the environmental review process moved quickly for a new NFL stadium in Los Angeles and a new Kings stadium in Sacramento. He wants an expedited process for everybody.
State Assemblyman Adam Gray took a turn at the podium and mentioned the March 7 election of a new Assembly Speaker in Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood. Because state term limits were adjusted to allow a person to serve 12 years in either the Assembly of the Senate, or split, he said stability will be added to the State House which could lead to reforms.
Gray said Rendon wants to hold unelected bureaucrats more accountable to the people.
"I can't underscore how important that is, I think particularly in this area where our communities frankly have been under attack in some respects by the air board and water board and some of the policies that are put in place," said Gray.
He sticks to his claim that climate change poses significant issues to agriculture in addition to the drought.
"When we give these unelected bureaucrats almost unlimited authority to put policies in place that make any economic growth very challenging, that's dangerous for the Central Valley."
Gray called the Rainy Day Fund "good policy."
He said he is pushing for the spending of the $3 billion in state water bond funds for new water storage projects. The Central Valley caucus of legislators is also working to spend some the state's cap and trade revenues in the Valley.
"We're taking in a lot of money here in California as part of this new cap and trade system and the new environmental regulations but we've got to make sure that money gets spent to help the very communities that sometimes it penalizes through those actions."
He spoke specifically of investing in glass plants and dairy digesters.
Gray also spoke of his hopefulness in a state transportation bond to help push the ACE train line into the Valley and improve local roads.
During a question and answer session, Cannella and Gray addressed water issues further. Cannella said he opposes legislation to allow rangeland to be converted to crops with wells because the region is over-drafting the groundwater tables. Both oppose 40 percent of reservoir flows being flushed out to the Delta for the purpose of propagating fish populations. Gray wants the state to mitigate impacts to farmers if they plan to seize 40 percent for environmental uses.
"You can't take away surface water and then get upset when farmers ... have to use groundwater to keep their livelihood going," said Cannella.
He said Gray's pressure on the state Water Resources Control Board seems to be having an impact in that their decision has been put off indefinitely.
County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, also a Westport farmer, gave an overview of the county operation, which consists of 4,200 employees in 27 departments with a $1.1 billion budget. Services include the District Attorney, Sheriff's Department, social services, jails, libraries, environmental resources and the landfill.
He addressed the well-publicized effort of the county to spend $1 million on prevention of homelessness, crime and drug abuse.
"Strengthening families, I think, is the number one issue to me," said DeMartini. "There's so many children that grow up in fatherless homes and they lack direction, they wind up in gangs, they get addicted to drugs and this is what leads to a lot of our problems."
The county, he said, is budgeting $8 million more into law enforcement over three years to hire 74 more deputies. Through grant funds the county is building a new detention facility on Crows Landing Road in west Ceres to provide 400 more beds so the county doesn't have to "kick" the bad guys "out the back door," he said.
DeMartini said he hopes county voters pass the half-cent sales tax measure for local roads, saying there is less money the county and cities can now use for road maintenance and new construction. Half of the money will be spent on fixing the roads while 27 percent will be used for new regional construction projects. Ten percent will be used to improve traffic flow, such as signalization. Passage means the county can leverage for more state and federal funds.
He mentioned the county's work to add infrastructure to areas of the county surrounded by cities, called county "islands." The Shackelford area of south Modesto, for example, has received new sewer and storm drainage systems as well as street lighting and curbs and gutters. Other county islands exist in Ceres, Turlock and Modesto.
"The county has put millions into these county islands already but there's still more that can be done, like the Bret Harte area. It does have a sewer system but we have not put in the storm drains or the curbs and gutters yet."
The idea of improving areas like the Airport District is to get them ready for city annexation, he said.
DeMartini said the county has built its financial reserves up to $114 million coupled with $99 million from the tobacco tax settlement, which could be spent on upgrading neighborhoods that lack infrastructure.
He also addressed water, saying he had to allow some of his farm to go fallow for lack of water.
"We're working with irrigation districts on this issue," said DeMartini. "It makes no sense to have an area for storage and then just dump the water down the river just for fish. If the Water Resources Board gets their way, we'll never ever have a full reservoir."
He said if 98 percent of the salmon coming from spawning beds in the county are being eaten by bass before it gets to the sea, the water should be better put to use by farmers.
"The state does not own that water. The Don Pedro Dam is a privately owned dam and forcing us to dump that water out of storage makes no sense at all. We are definitely going to fight that if we have to be in court for the next 100 years over that. We will not lie down and let that happen."
DeMartini said the salmon are "essentially extinct" since they have only been able to survive because they are hatched in fisheries and planted in streams.
During a question and answer session, supervisorial candidate Eileen Wyatt Stokman took on DeMartini, charging "a human resource crisis" at the county level and wondered what the Board of Supervisors is doing to retain and recruit emergency dispatchers, probation, deputies and social workers. DeMartini said the county offers a good salary and benefits package. He said the board just approved four new positions for Social Services. He noted the county has yet to reach an agreement with emergency dispatchers but has with other union groups. The county is offering a range of $24 to $33 per hour for qualifying dispatchers which DeMartini said "is pretty good."
"Generally I don't think that we have a problem with retention of workers," DeMartini told Stokman. "The salaries and benefits in government are better than the private sector. We treat our people very well."
Stokman, who is a county worker soon to retire, has made employee morale a chief campaign issue.
Vice Mayor Mike Kline gave a highlight of things the city is doing, including the General Plan update and the Parks Master Plan.
He invited the public to get involved in helping the craft the general plan, which will be a blueprint for how Ceres will develop through 2035. He guided people to check out the website at ceresgeneralplanupdate.com.
Kline briefly talked about water conservation in Ceres. He noted that Ceres has "done a really great job on water conservation." The city has accomplished a 24 percent water consumption cutback since 2013 as the result of the state's emergency drought measures. Kline suggested that because of water meter installation years before, Ceres has accomplished a 60 percent water conservation level since 2007. The city continues to offer rebates for turf replacement and water saving devices like low-flow toilets and washers.
In an attempt to improve the looks of downtown Ceres, the city is offering a façade improvement program, said Kline.
"We would like to have more businesses and business owners to participate in this stuff," said Kline.
He mentioned that the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center is still being held up by litigation in an appellate court and said "hopefully a decision will be made shortly." Proposed for the 26-acre shopping center at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads is a 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter and 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet.
He noted two bits of good news concerning economic activity. The first is that Ross is opening up in the former Staples store space on Hatch Road. The second is that the old Hollywood Video store building is being remodeled for five new commercial spaces.
Kline noted that the city continues to partner with the Stanislaus Alliance and Ceres Chamber of Commerce to strengthen the Ceres business community.
He noted the city continues to plan for the Mitchell/Service/Highway 99 interchange with its diverging diamond design concept.
"Hopefully we can get this all done with Caltrans to move forward in 2020," said Kline.
Kline updated the audience on the city's snagging of a new federal SAFER grant to fund six firefighters for a two-year term.
"Hopefully in two years the city coffers will be good and be able to retain them."
The Police Department, he said, was awarded a grant for body cameras.
"Right now they're studying them, testing them and writing a department policy and hopefully those will be going live in April."
Kline said a new Ceres Police dispatch center has been placed on the second floor of the police headquarters and will become a Computer Aided Dispatch system in April.
"The city is doing a fantastic job as far as moving forward," said Kline.
An audience member asked Kline what the city was doing about the loss of officers to higher-paying cities. Kline noted that some of the losses were not related to salary but due to family needs.
"Some of it, to me, is a little misconception. I know that we're in the process of re-evaluating where we stand as far as wages and what we can do."
But he admitted Ceres cannot pay what some cities like Tracy, Sunnyvale or Hayward do.
"You can't compete with that."
Someone asked Kline about aggressive panhandling and if the city was making any dents in the problem on Hatch Road. Kline said police try to sweep through the shopping districts to get panhandlers to move on.
"I've been in there and people come up to me and the first thing I say is ‘Sorry, I use the ATM for everything' and they walk away from me because they're looking for change. It's just a constant effort to notify PD. When they do patrols through there it slows down for a while."
Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter noted that her group will be organizing a Business Academy starting April 4 and run Mondays until May 9. The event will be open to current and future business owners and help them develop a business plan, learn the credit process and identifying financial tools.