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2014 already promising to be better
Art deWerk - photo by Contributed to the Courier

As we begin 2014, I wish everyone a very happy New Year, and that those who during the last year have suffered from crime victimization, financial difficulties or health issues are able to leave those hardships behind and enter into a new era of improved life's circumstances. Each time the first day of January arrives, it creates a sense of renewal, or the opportunity for a fresh start on life. It is a time when we can choose to eliminate bad habits, to be better neighbors or to be more productive members of the community.

2014 is already promising to be better than 2013. Here in the Central Valley, our economy is showing signs of coming back to life with some new construction taking place, housing prices are increasing, and it appears that the unemployment rate is finally inching downwards. We still have a long way to go, however.

We are still struggling to overcome the adverse impacts of the state's "realignment" program which has led to filling our local jails with offenders who should be in prison. Our communities now have to contend with innumerable early-release prisoners, many of whom have mental illnesses, drug dependency issues and who are unemployed. Criminals arrested locally for all but the most violent crimes are either spending no time at all in jail or their time there is very limited - often for just a few days or even only hours. We no longer enjoy the security that we had in the past when an arrested violator would be kept off the streets for an appropriate amount of time and thus sparing community members from further victimization.

We are also facing a water shortage, air quality continues to be a challenge and our local communities can use a lot of clean-up. In short, the issues of crime and other factors that account for the overall "livability" of Central Valley cities needs continuing attention.

We can all pitch in to help make our communities safer for 2014. A safe community also takes intoxicated driving seriously by always using a designated driver when intoxicants become part of the day or evening's activities. And, of course, intoxicated drivers should never be allowed to get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Peer pressure can be one of the best deterrents.

To help reduce the negative consequences of "realignment," the community can be more vigilant about neighborhood activities. It is important to notify law enforcement of suspicious people or activities and about actual crimes taking place. The police have a limited number of officers patrolling the streets at any given time, while the community has literally tens of thousands of sets of eyes and ears to help report and therefore thwart crime before it happens.

Community members have a great amount of collective ability to influence the quality of life where the live. The first and most important thing is to be informed; informed about the nature of the problems here and what is causing them. Once community members are informed they can then play an active role in helping to improve the community through direct actions but also through the political process by attending city council meetings and by keeping track of what goes on at the county and state levels of government. It is also important to pay attention to the water situation and what the elected water board members and local governments are doing to look out for our interests. There is no resource that is more important to us, so it only make sense to understand the challenges and to weigh in on what the elected officials and their staffs are doing in connection with the water situation.

Community members who understand that a messy, littered city is a crime attractant can take steps to ensure that they are not part of the problem. They can teach children to never litter and they can bag their garbage and cover loads when transporting them to the refuse center to keep the wind from spreading papers and plastics and other discards. Some residents already go through their neighborhoods picking up garbage to help with the cause, and I can only encourage more people to do the same. Regardless of where you are, it only takes a moment to pick up litter and deposit it in garbage containers that are found most everywhere.

Finally, I view neighborhoods as the strength of any community. It only makes sense that neighbors look out for and take care of each other -- seniors and children, especially. Communications is key, and it is important to get to know each other. The strength of any neighborhood flows outward and through the rest of a community. The more healthy neighborhoods we have, the stronger the city becomes overall.

I look forward to 2014, because Jan. 1, while only symbolic, represents a time for change and improvement. By being committed to the communities we live in and by actively helping them to become better places, 2014 can end up as a banner year for us all. I wish everyone a safe and prosperous 2014.