Monday, May 29, 2017

[Kings County] Hanford City Council Member Francisco Ramirez Faces Recall

Blog note: this article references a 2016 grand jury report.
A group of Hanford residents has filed recall papers against Hanford City Council Member Francisco Ramirez. The group has 90 days from May 19 to collect 800 signatures in district D. Ramirez was elected in November of 2014.
Hanford resident Skip Athey served Ramirez recall papers before the city council meeting started on May 16. Bob Ramos then spoke during public comment to announce that Ramirez had been served with papers. Councilmember Justin Mendez tried to stop Ramos from speaking, saying, “Mr. Ramos is clearly out of order.”
Skip Athey stated in an email to the Valley Voice that night, “Hanford City Councilman Francisco Ramirez has been served Recall papers. He broke the law prior to being elected, the Grand Jury investigated and determined in fact he did, so they reported it to the Kings County District Attorney but he has been too weak to prosecute and instead made it political…”
The recall papers were filed with the City of Hanford on May 19 and needed a minimum of 20 signatures. The recall states,
“Hanford Councilman Francisco Ramirez has a long history of supporting his interest over the interests of the community. His corruption and disregard for the law has helped create a culture of mistrust within the community of Hanford culminating in numerous investigations.
Mr. Ramirez knowingly and willful misuse of public resources has violated the people’s trust. His continued failure to file the proper disclosure forms required by the Fair Political Practices Commission has resulted in an ongoing investigation.
The Kings County Grand Jury in their findings state Mr. Ramirez knowingly and willfully violated the Campaign Finance Requirements by failing to open and maintain a campaign checking account knowingly and willfully failed to accurately account for all campaign contributions received. They further state Ramirez knowingly and willfully mislead voters by stating he graduated in 1999 with both a Bachelors and Masters degree and strongly recommended Ramirez no longer state he has college degrees.”
A former public official familiar with recalls stated that recalls are very difficult to do. He said that “without any hiccups it will be an eight-month process so we are talking about February of 2018 if it is done right.”
Ramirez’ term is up in November of 2018.
The current recall effort is one of several attempts to oust Ramirez from his city council seat. Different groups of Hanford residents have filed complaints with the Hanford City Council, Kings County Grand Jury and the Fair Political Practices Committee (FPPC).
The Kings County Grand Jury responded to one group’s complaints and all issues were resolved in the summer of 2016. The FPPC investigation has been ongoing.
In August of 2015 Skip Athey, Glenda Dwyer, Bob Ramos and former Hanford Mayor Dan Chin filed a complaint with the FPPC claiming that Ramirez did not file the appropriate campaign finance forms for his 2014 city council election. It is alleged that their complaint was motivated by Ramirez’ vote to allow a movie theater to locate outside the downtown region.
In December 2015 former Hanford Planning Commissioner, Danny Escobar, filed an FPPC complaint with the support of Athey, Chin, and Ramos. The group’s many accusations include Ramirez’ misrepresenting his accomplishments while serving on the Armona School Board and Lanare Water Board, his claim on campaign materials that he received a BA and Master’s degrees in business administration, and for failing to open a bank account for campaign contributions received.
Ironically, it was these same Hanford residents who supported Ramirez, some financially, during his victorious 2014 campaign against incumbent city council member Lou Martinez. The relationship allegedly soured when Ramirez continually did not cast votes the way the group expected.
In a quote from a 2015 Hanford Sentinel article Ramirez said, “There are certain individuals that are throwing these allegations at me just because I’m not allowing them to pull my strings and be their puppet.”
Both Dan Chin and Danny Escobar have had their own problems concerning public office. Both have received FPPC warning letters for campaign violations. In addition, Escobar resigned from the Hanford Planning Commission days before the city council was going to discuss his removal under a cloud of suspicion. Chin faced his own recall late in 2011 and ended up stepping down as mayor but retaining his city council seat. The recall effort failed.
When Jay Wierenga, Communications Director at the FPPC, was asked why Ramirez’ case had not been concluded he said,  “Investigations take the time they take… lots of factors in each and every case. I can tell you that two-thirds of our cases are resolved in 180 days or less, and almost 90% are completed within a year. But, like a lot of things in life, it depends….”
Ramirez Responds
The recall effort might put an end to the debate on whether this is a case of bullying or whether the continuing complaints against Ramirez are legitimate. Ramirez has a reliable pro-business voting record, often advocating for less government regulations to encourage businesses investment in Hanford. He also voted in favor of Hanford’s new general plan that rezoned 18 undeveloped acres of Hidden Valley Park as low-density residential.
According to Ramirez, “The District does not support this recall and they will not get the signatures.”
In Ramirez’ official response to the recall filed with the city on May 24 he states, “Thank you to all the citizens who support me. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t keep doing what I do. There are some individuals that don’t even live in our district that want me out of office because I’m not a part of the good old boys club. When you elected me I promised to change things and not be part of the status quo.”
He added, “I will keep on fighting for the citizens of our great community!”
May 27, 2017
Valley Voice
By Catherine Doe

[Shasta County] The Buzz: Will city give Stillwater complete overhaul?

Redding Mayor Brent Weaver says it’s time to stop blaming the Great Recession for Stillwater Business Park’s woes.
“I think we are at a point where things are improving, so I think near-term we need to do everything we can as a city and EDC (Economic Development Corporation of Shasta County) to get some tenants in there,” Weaver told me.
I spoke to Weaver about the Shasta County grand jury’s critical report on the park – “Stillwater Business Park, Still Spending; Still Waiting.” Weaver reiterated what he told reporter Jim Schultz, that the grand jury did the community a service, giving us all an opportunity “to look under the hood.”
So, will the grand jury report get the city to do a complete overhaul on Stillwater? What’s been tried to date isn’t working. The park still sits empty.
The grand jury noted that since the park opened in 2010, it has generated close to 15 leads and one lot has sold.
Lassen Canyon Nursery purchased property in Stillwater in late 2015, but backed off those plans earlier this year due to changing conditions in the berry-growing market. The nursery vows to revisit Stillwater and has no intention at this time to sell its lot.
Come up with alternatives
Among the recommendations the grand jury made was telling the city to come up with different uses for Stillwater by early next year.
Does the idea Kent Dagg brought to the City Council in February qualify?
Dagg, former executive director of the Shasta Builders’ Exchange, suggested parceling out a 15-acre lot at the park into 1- to 2-acre lots. That would get local companies who maybe can’t afford to purchase a large lot interested.
So how many meetings has Dagg had with city officials since he brought this to the council’s priority-setting session in February?
“I’ve had good follow-up from Brent Weaver and (now retired City Manager) Kurt Starman. Both were very interested in the concept,” Dagg said.
But, too, Dagg was told the city is in discussions with a company interested in Stillwater. So be patient. We will get back to you.
“Once they exhausted the recruitment — whether it’s a success or not — they would revisit the idea,” Dagg said.
 Weaver declined to comment about the recruitment.
For the record, Dagg hasn’t read the grand jury report. He still believes in Stillwater. And like many of the park’s proponents, Dagg thinks once the first company starts building, others will soon follow.
Dagg is no stranger to “radical” thinking when it comes to Stillwater. He spearheaded the city of Redding’s “Radical 10 in '10” in 2009, a program meant to jump-start an economy in the depths of a recession. Among the initiatives was a land-for-jobs deal in which the city would have given away the first lot at Stillwater.
Southern Aluminum Finishing was primed to take the city up on its offer. But, ironically, the manufacturer discovered Stillwater’s “shovel-ready” moniker wasn’t necessarily accurate. What finally changed Southern Aluminum’s mind not to build in Stillwater was the chance to buy a bank-owned building in Redding.
Which highlights the fact that Stillwater is not only competing for jobs with other communities but also its own community. There is a lot of empty commercial land for sale in Redding.
EDC response
Stillwater Business Park was the EDC’s idea.
The organization identified the site and had an engineering analysis done on the property in 1999. The engineer’s report said the site was doable as an industrial park.
We reached out to the EDC the day of the grand jury report. EDC President Tony Giovaniello told reporter Schultz he had not read the report so was not yet ready to comment.
Then on Thursday, two days after the grand jury report came out, Giovaniello, in a prepared statement, said the EDC respects the grand jury’s report and the work that went into it. The EDC still sees Stillwater as an asset and will continue to evaluate the grand jury’s findings and recommendations.
Meanwhile, Stillwater, when it was conceived, was billed as a game-changer for the North State. But can a large-lot, shovel-ready industrial park still be relevant in today’s economic development game?
“It’s the single biggest thing we have done in terms of economic development, maybe ever, in this community,” former Redding City Councilman Pat Kight said in a July 1999 story I wrote announcing the vision for Stillwater.
Former EDC President Jim Zauher in that same story said the county doesn’t have ready-to-go large sites. Zauher believed the industrial park would put us in a more competitive position to land large companies.
For his part, Mayor Weaver says he will continue to push to keep Stillwater Business Park a top priority.
“But there will be some point in time when the council and the new city manager (Barry Tippin) will have to make a decision,” Weaver said, adding you can't just keep doing the same thing and expect results.
Stay tuned.
Speeding up the recovery
The Redding City Council recently heard a proposal from Councilman Adam McElvain, who wants to work with small businesses to bring a publicly owned ultra-high-speed internet hub to downtown. The project would be paid for exclusively by private enterprise. McElvain and others believe this would attract investment and new business to Redding.
McElvain’s idea comes on the heels of the Shasta Venture Hub, a business incubator and common-working area for startup companies created by the EDC with the help of investors.
For me, the Venture Hub and McElvain’s proposal are part of a small-ball approach that economic development has taken today.
Dan Morrow, who owns Opt-Test and Soft-Tek, says the federal government is working to bring manufacturing back to the United States and Redding has positioned itself well to benefit from this movement.
“The last piece of that will be the internet,” said Morrow, who supports McElvain’s efforts. “We pay a lot for high-speed internet here and it is definitely a drag on this whole movement. It’s the dark cloud that kind of hovers over everything.”
May 27, 2017
Redding Record Searchlight
By David Benda

Friday, May 26, 2017

Investigation sheds light on Ventura County Children and Family Services

Some social workers have excess workload

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. - Ventura County Children and Family Services does an adequate job in providing case management services to families.
This coming from a Ventura County Grand Jury investigation into CFS's ability to foster communication and develop partnerships with families they serve.
The Grand Jury investigation also found that some social workers have excessive caseloads that affect their ability to do a thorough and comprehensive job.  
"With no definitive standards, the number of cases assigned to each social worker can be too heavy to be able to devote the time each child requires and to effectively establish a partnership with each family," a press release stated.
The Grand Jury made recommendations that would improve case management services, including reasonable limits on caseloads, developing a family-friendly grievance procedure and allowing families the opportunity to express feedback once their case is closed.
The Grand Jury recommended Children and Family Services explore options with the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for the funding of additional substance abuse treatment programs.
May 25, 2017
By KEYT Staff

[Ventura County] Grand jury finds cities under-prepared for another major water emergency

Ventura County may have survived the worst of the state’s drought, but if a severe dry spell returns and lasts more than five years, most local cities will be back in serious trouble.
That’s the finding of a report issued this week by the Ventura County grand jury that evaluated plans of the county’s 10 cities to see whether local officials have adequately addressed their water needs now and in the future.
Several cities, according to the report, rely too much on imported water and haven’t developed plans for an emergency water shortage. None of the cities have thought out how they would deal with long-term drought, the report said.
For example, Calleguas Water District, which delivers water to about 75 percent of the county, gets three-quarters of its supplies from Northern California through the state Water Project aqueduct, the report noted.
“If an earthquake were to damage the aqueduct, Calleguas would run out of water in about a month,” the report said. “Authorities state an earthquake cutting off the aqueduct isn’t a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’”
Although the county is now no longer in “extreme” drought conditions following heavy rains in December, January and February, the county remains in the “moderate” drought category, and many nearby reservoirs remain at less than 50 percent of capacity, the report said.
Complicating the situation is the county’s fractured water delivery system. While some cities rely mostly on imported sources from wholesalers, others use mostly ground water, runoff stored in reservoirs and recycled water.
In many cases, it’s the water retailers, not the cities, that control the local supplies, so the amount of available local water often determines whether cities can approve new housing or retail developments.
“ Development plans are potentially constrained by the water availability,” the report said.
Because county ordinances such as Save Open-space and Agriculture Resources, or SOAR, restrict development in unincorporated areas without prior voter approval, most of the county’s projected population growth is expected to occur in the cities. So the grand jury focused on the relationship between local water supplies and urban development in the municipalities.
For its research, the civil investigative body used state-mandated Urban Water Management Plans, which California requires all urban and wholesale water suppliers and retail water agencies to update every five years.
Although the local water plans meet minimum state-required, three-year drought scenarios, “ none of the plans address a longer drought . . . even though the current drought has lasted over five years,” the report said.
“Catastrophic water shortages do not appear to have been given high priority in the Urban Water Management Plans,” the grand jury found.
In addressing long- term needs, the report said, local water plans rely on overly optimistic projections of imported water from wholesalers such as the Metropolitan Water District, or MWD.
Such predictions are no longer reliable, the report said.
For example, the MWD has projected that “without a significant increase in the amount of available water there will be water restrictions in eight out of every 10 years,” the report said. Unless customers significantly cut back on use, “annual retail water demand within MWD will outstrip resources by approximately 1.3 million acre-feet, or 22 percent,” the report said.
In addition, the report said, cities are counting on tapping into new sources of ground water in the future by building new infrastructure “which has neither been approved nor funded.”
“Long-term city plans are based on the optimistic view there will be as much water available in 2035 or 2040, as there was in 2010,” the report said. “These predictions do not include any consideration of a water constrained future of frequent and extensive periods of drought.”
The report recommends that council members in the 10 cities work with the county’s water suppliers to develop “long-term plans to respond to catastrophic disruptions of water supplies and droughts exceeding three years.”
“The grand jury further recommends the 10 city councils ensure all future water availability plans clearly identify any potential water sources that are based on unfunded or unpermitted infrastructure.”
May 25, 2017
Thousand Oaks Acorn
By Hector Gonzalez

[Santa Barbara] County short in funds for both jails, grand jury report says

Troubles with housing all of the inmates in Santa Barbara County jails won’t go away even after the construction of the North County Jail, according to a county grand jury report released on May 18.
While the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors implemented a plan to fund the northern jail, the report found, there was no “concrete” plan to fund the millions of dollars’ worth of repairs for the South County jail.
The main impetus for the new jail, according to the report, was to alleviate the overcrowding in the main jail facility at 4436 Calle Real, which has been at 120 percent capacity on a consistent basis for the last several years. The jail’s been under court order since 1988 to reduce capacity to 819, but the population frequently exceeds 1,100.
The new North County Jail—which broke ground in October 2016 and is slated for completion in 2019 at a cost of at least $111 million—is rated at a capacity of only 376 beds.
According to interviews with officials in the county’s General Services Department, the jurors learned that the main jail is in “failure mode” that falls out of compliance with current seismic standards, includes a “dilapidated” medium security facility (also called the “Honor Farm”), and needs repairs to the roof and more than 60-year-old plumbing and sewer systems.
Marx-Okuba, an engineering consulting firm hired by the General Services Department in 2015, estimated that more than $15 million would be needed in the next 10 years to bring the main jail into a “safe and up-to-date operational order,” the report stated.
In the report, the grand jury recommended that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which controls the jails, develop a prioritized list of repairs in the next six months and that the Board of Supervisors find alternative funding for repairs.
Responding to the report, Kelly Hoover, the public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said her office shares the grand jury’s concerns.
“The Sheriff’s Office is reviewing the grand jury’s recommendations and is actively engaged with General Services on developing a plan for renovating portions of the main jail campus,” Hoover said in an emailed statement to the Sun. “We will issue a formal response to the grand jury within the specified time frame.”
May 24, 2017
Santa Maria Sun
By David Minsky

[Shasta County] Grand jury casts critical eye on Stillwater

Although they didn't flat out call it a $40 million — and rising — boondoggle, the Shasta County grand jury issued a 14-page report Tuesday critically questioning the financial viability of the 700-acre Stillwater Business Park.
"Ten years of planning and developing and seven years of marketing have failed to create any new jobs or industry at Stillwater Business Park," the jury wrote in its findings about the project. "Nevertheless, the city has never comprehensively re-evaluated the viability of the Stillwater Business Park to determine whether additional funds should continue to be invested" in it.
And, it said, Redding officials should reevaluate the "shovel ready" park to determine whether it's still doable.
It is recommending, among other things, that the city appoint an existing staff member as the manager of the long dormant project by the end of September and to direct staff to conduct an evaluation of its future viability.
It is also calling upon the City Council to direct staff by the end of September to identify alternative uses for the business park and to present its findings by the end of February.
Still other recommendations to the City Council include:
  • Contract for an external audit of all funding and expenditures related to the business park by Dec. 31.
  • Establish by Dec. 31 a formal procedure for comprehensively evaluating the viability of the business park.
  • Request Colliers International and the Shasta County Economic Development Corporation to jointly determine the continued market demand for existing park parcels and present their finding to the City Council by Nov. 30.
Redding Mayor Brent Weaver said Tuesday he has skimmed the grand jury's report and was pleased it decided to "shine a light" on the project.
"It (the Stillwater Business Park) is a concern for me and a majority of the City Council," he said. "You can't do the same thing over and over again and expect different results."
But he said there are no immediate plans to dump the project.
He's hoping the improved economy and marketing efforts over the next year or two will see more companies establishing businesses there.
If not, he said, then it might indeed be time to come up with a different plan for the property.
"We won't sit on it indefinitely," he said.
City Councilwoman Francie Sullivan, who called the project a courageous and "bold move to try something new," echoed similar comments, but also said the project did bring businesses into the community, citing Southern Aluminum Finishing, although not necessarily to the business park itself.
"It did create some economic development, but it hasn’t been the big deal that we had hoped for," she said.
Still, she said, it's too early to give up on it, noting that the Great Recession had a great impact on the business park .
"It finished construction during the worst economic crisis in the country," she said, noting there have been some suggestions to sell the business park to a private developer.
Although she believes those calls to do so are a bit premature, she also said the city needs to keep an open mind to all possibilities.
Vice Mayor Kristen Schreder, who said she's unsure what needs to be done to solve the park's problems, said the grand jury's thorough report poses a number of excellent questions that will help the City Council get answers.
"It helps to create the conversation we need to have," she said. "It gives us the opportunity to dig deeper."
In its report, titled "Stillwater Business Park, Still Spending; Still Waiting," the jury says the City Council, as well as administrators and others, are unaware of the park's true cost, leaving them unable to make informed decisions about the project.
According to the grand jury, the city and the Redding Electric Utility have, together, spent close to $41 million to finance the land and infrastructure developments at the business park.
Additionally, the city continues to annually spend almost $1 million from the general fund on the project.
In its summary, the grand jury says city administrators frequently cite the cost of the project as $23 million, the cost to buy and develop the property near the Redding Municipal Airport.
"However, the cost rises to $41 million when debt repayments and electrical and infrastructure by Redding Electric Utility are included," the grand jury says. "Future scheduled interest and principal repayments to service long-term bond debt over the next 20 years by both the City of Redding and Redding Electric Utility will increase the total known cost to $59 million if the bond debts are not paid off prior to maturity."
Additionally, the grand jury notes that more than seven years of marketing by the city, the Shasta County Economic Development Corporation and three different marketing firms have not yet paid off as hoped.
"These combined efforts over seven years have yielded about 14 serious leads and a single lot sale totaling less than $1 million," it says. "If all parcels could be sold for the current appraised value, it appears the city of Redding would still lose at least $27 million."
It was hoped the business park, which saw construction completed in 2009, would create at least 2,500 higher-wage industrial jobs.
But only one company — Lassen Canyon Nursery — has so far bought a lot at there. And work has yet begun to build there.
In March, the company, anticipated to add about 20 jobs, was backing off its plans to build due to the uncertain economic climate of the berry-growing industry, but company Vice President Liz Elwood-Ponce also said the nursery has no plans to sell its lot in the business park.
It paid $840,000 for 16.75 acres in Stillwater in late 2015 and its building plans for its first phase of construction were recently approved by the city.
Meanwhile, a local greenhouse manufacturer that had hoped to set up shop at the park — Emerald Kingdom — wasn't allowed to purchase a lot.
Larry Vaupel, the city of Redding's economic development manager, who could not be reached Tuesday to comment about the grand jury report, has said Emerald Kingdom and another company, D&S Family LLC, had made an offer on the same lot.
D&S Family also wanted to buy another lot.
"So it came down to the City Council wanting to sell two lots rather than one lot," Vaupel said earlier this year. "So they told staff to continue negotiating with that company."
Colliers International, the firm marketing Stillwater for the city, has said Emerald Kingdom's offer to purchase a lot at the park was rejected because its proposed Teflon building didn't meet the park's design standards.
Tony Giovaniello, president of the Shasta County Economic Development Corporation, which shares responsibility for the park's marketing, said Tuesday he had not yet read the grand jury's report.
May 23, 2017
Redding Record Searchlight
By Jim Schultz

Contra Costa [County] prosecutors have ‘no confidence’ in District Attorney Mark Peterson

MARTINEZ — Contra Costa County prosecutors declared Monday they have “no confidence” in District Attorney Mark Peterson, less than two weeks after a county civil grand jury said he should be removed from office for “willful or corrupt misconduct in office” related to spending more than $66,000 in campaign funds on personal items.
Ballots were cast at several locations over the Monday lunch hour and counted at 5 p.m. Aron DeFerrari, president of the 88-member Contra Costa District Attorneys Association, would not provide vote totals but said turnout among the membership Monday was “extremely high.”
The “no confidence” vote, which DeFerrari said is unprecedented in the history of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, reflects widespread discontent among deputy prosecutors about their boss, who in January was fined $45,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for nine violations of the state’s Political Reform Act. That 1974 legislation regulates campaign financing, conflicts of interest, lobbying and governmental ethics.
Monday’s vote was no surprise, given that the Contra Costa District Attorneys Association’s seven-member board had shortly after the grand jury’s report urged its rank-and-file to cast such a vote.
Monday’s action was the latest in a series of setbacks for Peterson since he acknowledged in December that, as chairman of his own campaign’s finances, he spent more than $66,000 in campaign funds on movie tickets, meals, clothes, hotel rooms and other personal items over a five-year period ending in 2015. Peterson never reported making any loans to himself or his campaign. In addition to the state fine and the grand jury finding, Paul Graves — a prosecutor working for Peterson — said he would run in 2018 to succeed his boss. Santa Clara County prosecutor Patrick Vanier has also announced his intention to run against Peterson.
Peterson, reached Monday evening, wouldn’t say whether Monday’s vote would alter his re-election plans.
“Regardless of the recent vote, I’m very proud of the work that I and the deputy district attorneys in our office have done in reducing violent crime, fighting domestic violence, and preventing future crimes in our region,” he said. “We will continue to work hard to serve the citizens of Contra Costa County.”
In a written statement in December, he said he considered the $66,000 to be a loan and intended to fully repay it to his campaign account. But FPPC records show he only stopped spending campaign cash on personal expenses after he found out he was being audited in 2015.
DeFerrari said Peterson’s announcement in March that he intended to seek re-election despite admitting to illegal actions, and the subsequent grand jury report, were the two key events that turned most deputy prosecutors against Peterson.
“That was pretty shocking,” DeFerrari said Monday of Peterson’s intent to run even after acknowledging using his campaign’s money. “This vote is for the defendants who wonder why one standard applies to the district attorney and another standard applies to them.”
Added fellow prosecutor and association Vice President Colleen Gleason, “The erosion of public trust is starting to affect our ability to pursue justice. We could no longer be silent.”
May 23, 2017
East Bay Times
By Sam Richards

Marin [County] watchdog growls over public sector retiree health costs

At a time of increased scrutiny of pension costs, most public agencies in Marin have allowed their unfunded retiree health care liabilities to rise over the past five years, according to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.
Its report, titled “Marin’s Retirement Health Care Benefits: The Money Still Isn’t There,” compares the retiree health care liabilities of 39 government agencies in 2016 with their liabilities in 2012.
“While some Marin agencies continue to reduce their unfunded OPEB liability, we are concerned that many agencies still have not done so,” the grand jury states in its report, issued last week.
Other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, principally consist of health care benefits, but can also include life insurance, disability, legal services and other costs.
“This problem has been escalating for years and will not be magically gone tomorrow,” the grand jury writes. “Left unchecked, the growing liabilities may eventually challenge agencies’ fiscal health.”
The grand jury recommends that Marin agencies adopt a formal policy for how they plan to meet their funding obligations and if necessary prioritize cost containment strategies to reduce or eliminate retiree health care benefits for future employees.
Twenty-three of the agencies that the grand jury looked at increased their unfunded liabilities by a total of $41.9 million. The other 16 decreased their liabilities by $108.1 million; that included the county of Marin, which reduced its unfunded liabilities by $88.3 million.
The collective unfunded retiree health care liabilities of the 39 agencies amounted to $540 million in 2016, down from $606.1 million in 2012. Most of that decrease, however, was attributable to the reduction in the county of Marin’s unfunded liabilities. If the county of Marin is removed from the equation, the unfunded liabilities of the remaining 38 agencies increased to $245.7 million in 2016, up from $223.4 million in 2012.
Five of Marin’s 11 municipalities — Belvedere, Larkspur, Novato, San Rafael and Tiburon — have allowed their retiree health care liabilities to increase since 2012, with Belvedere seeing the biggest increase.
All but five of the county’s 13 school districts — Kentfield, Larkspur-Corte Madera, Ross Valley, Tamalpais Union High School and Marin Community College — have seen their retiree health care liabilities increase. Mill Valley, Reed Union and Novato Unified had the biggest increases. The College of Marin saw the biggest decrease.
Only four of the 14 special districts the grand jury looked at — Central Marin Sanitation Agency, the Marin Municipal Water District, the Novato fire district and the Tiburon fire district — saw a decrease in their retiree health care liabilities. Ross Valley Sanitary and Central Marin police had the biggest increases.
The grand jury says that while much attention has been paid lately to a looming unfunded pension crisis across America, “Less commonly reported is the looming unfunded OPEB crisis.”
The grand jury said that while the unfunded pension liability for the 39 agencies it examined amounts to $956.3 million, their unfunded retiree health care benefits total $540 million.
In January 2016, state Controller Betty Yee estimated the state’s unfunded liability for OPEB at $74.1 billion.
The grand jury notes that unlike pensions, health care benefits are typically not guaranteed or protected by state law, so governments have much more latitude to scale back health care benefits and share benefit-related costs with retirees.
The grand jury recommends that all public agencies prefund their retiree health care benefit obligations rather than paying the annual cost of health care benefits as they come due. Money set aside for future benefit liabilities can be earning an investment return until it is needed, thus reducing overall liabilities.
The grand jury report shows that prefunding was key to the large decreases in liabilities realized by the county of Marin and the College of Marin between 2012 and 2016. The county of Marin also capped retiree health care benefit levels for some of its employees. The money that Marin County sets aside to cover retiree health care costs goes into a trust.
“Since we set up the trust, we’ve earned over $10 million,” said Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel.
The grand jury says at least three school districts in Marin — Mill Valley, San Rafael Elementary and San Rafael High School districts — have established substantial reserve funds to bank money to cover retiree health care benefits. The grand jury recommends using a trust instead, however, since a trust is usually required to ensure that assets won’t be used for some other purpose or attached by a creditor.
Corte Madera Town Manager Todd Cusimano said his town has been able to reduce its retiree health care liabilities by about 17 percent since 2012 by switching from pay-as-you-go to prefunding and eliminating retiree health care benefits for new employees.
Corte Madera now pays an additional $500,000 a year into a trust to cover future liabilities.
“We’re approaching almost $2 million in our trust,” Cusimano said. He estimates that at this pace the town’s retiree health care benefits will be fully funded in 16 years.
In its report, the grand jury provides a long list of strategies for containing retiree health care costs.
Richard Tait of Mill Valley, a member of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, a Marin-based public pension reform group, said, “However, a significant majority only apply to newer employees. As most of the unfunded liability results from obligations to current employees and existing retirees, we wish that reforms for current employees had received more attention.”
Tait said, for example, one strategy that should have been mentioned is raising the age for lifetime benefit eligibility from age 50 to 60.
Nevertheless, Tait congratulated the grand jury “for reporting the magnitude of the unfunded retiree health liability facing Marin public agencies.”
May 21, 2017
Marin Independent Journal
By Richard Halstead

[Orange County] Ouch! That Hurts

Laguna’s immunization rate remains the county’s lowest

Vaccination rates in all Orange County school districts increased markedly since a state law eliminating personal exemptions took effect last July, but more unvaccinated students are enrolled in the Laguna Beach district than any other in the county, says a [grand jury] report released this week.
In Laguna, the immunization rate rose to 86.5 percent in the current school year, compared to 71.1 percent in 2013-14, but remains below the recommended herd immunity threshold, says the report based on figures from the county Health Care Agency and state Department of Public Health.
The Centers for Disease Control considers a 92-94 percent immunization rate as necessary to achieve herd immunity to prevent the spread of disease.
Currently, 241 students out of a total enrollment of 2,992 students in Laguna’s four public schools have personal belief exemptions for childhood vaccinations, district spokeswoman Leisa Winston said. At the high school, 87 students sought exemptions; 38 are unvaccinated at the middle school, 61 at El Morro and 55 at Top of the World, she said.
“We have a large number of grandfathered personal exemptions and we have no authority to require these students to vaccinate,” Superintendent Jason Viloria said in a statement. “As these students move through our system, the levels of personal exemptions will drop off and our rates will continue to improve.”
He pointed out that district staff developed an outreach effort and internal controls to make families aware of the requirements under Senate Bill 277, which eliminated personal belief exemptions for mandatory vaccinations. The only exception now allowed is for medical reasons, such as those who are immune compromised or allergic to various vaccine components.
In March, an unvaccinated Laguna Beach High School student contracted measles, then only the second occurrence of the now rarely reported illness in the county.
Communicable disease experts imposed a quarantine on a handful of unvaccinated schoolmates that could have had contact with the measles-infected student, barring their attendance and instructing them to stay home until April 18.
School officials said seven students were initially excluded, though one produced proof of vaccination and was permitted to return. “We are fortunate that the one case did not result in further spread,” Winston said this week.
A known contact of the LBHS student who was also unvaccinated tested positive, but was already under quarantine and has not exposed others, OC Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good also said this week.
In the experience of Sarah Durand, PTA president at Top of the World Elementary, the topic was debated most among parents of preschoolers and the decisions of anti-immunization parents were often influenced by the stance of their pediatricians.
Laguna’s lower vaccination rate, she suggested, might be tied to affluent parents more likely to question conventions of western medicine. “We have a lot of challengers,” she said.
In a 2015 survey of 1,000 Canadian parents, 92 percent considered vaccines safe and effective, but 28 percent expressed uncertainty about a link between vaccines and autism, 27 percent worry that vaccines can harm their children, and 33 percent think drug makers are behind mandatory vaccinations. Findings were published in “Vaccine Hesitancy,” an article on the National Institutes of Health website.
The county grand jury report released Monday, May 15, shows that since the law was passed in June 2015, enacted after a measles outbreak at Disneyland that winter, districts have made use of staff, direct mail and other outreach methods to educate vaccine hesitant parents.
In Laguna, prior to the first day of school, lists are compiled at each school of students and the vaccinations they have yet to receive and dates that missing doses are due, Winston said. Each month, a district nurse evaluates the list and notifies parents by phone of upcoming vaccination dates, she said. If proof of vaccination isn’t provided within 10 days, the student is excluded from class. The nurse also runs a quarterly check district wide to ensure that vaccinations by newly enrolled students are current, Winston said.
Kindergarten enrollment forms require parents provide proof their children received multiple doses of six childhood vaccines: polio, chickenpox, hepatitis B and the combination vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
While not included in the grand jury report, the current school year kindergarten vaccination rate at Laguna’s largest private school, Anneliese Schools, is 94 percent, according to immunization rates available on the state Department of Public Health website.
Although the tightening of vaccination requirements for all California schools was predicted to be troublesome, it proved to be the opposite, according to the grand jury’s findings. While some suggested the law could impact public school enrollment and lead to more home schooling, student enrollment remained essentially unchanged, the report says. That was also true in Laguna, Winston said.
May 20, 2017
The Laguna Beach Indy
By Andrea Adelson

Grand Jury recommends consolidating Butte County mosquito districts

Oroville >> The Butte County Grand Jury has recommended that mosquito districts in Durham and Oroville be folded into the larger Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control District.
Currently, the three operate separately and each collect parcel taxes to deal with the insects.
The smaller districts aren’t’ able to provide things such as insect and disease surveillance and rely too much on adult insecticide, the report states.
Right now, the Butte County district covers all of the county except the areas covered by the other two. Durham and Oroville are treated spring through fall, and only by ground, not by air.
The larger district also charges an average of about $10 per parcel, while the charges per parcel for the two others are higher, per parcel.
One of the reasons for the change, as cited by the Grand Jury, is that mosquitoes move quickly through the county, and the effectiveness of mosquito control in one district can impact residents in another mosquito district.
Back in 2004, the Butte County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) conducted a review and also recommended consolidation.
Mosquitoes can spread disease, including West Nile virus. More recently there have been concerns about the Zika virus, which is also spread by mosquitoes.
Some of the advantages going for the Butte County mosquito district are the ability to spray from the air, ability to track diseases spread through mosquitoes, a staff entomologist and mosquito fish breeding program, the report highlights. Butte County’s program also uses “sentinel chickens,” to test for the diseases.
Butte County also keeps lists of people who have asked to be excluded from spray areas, whereas the Durham and Oroville have a less reliable system for opting out, the report states.
The Grand Jury concludes that residents in Oroville and Durham would receive better service if the three districts were consolidated.
The next step is a response from LAFCO.
May 19, 2017
Chico Enterprise-Record
By Heather Hacking

[Sonoma County] Jason Walsh: New report eyes the forest of Sonoma Valley’s many branches of benevolence

Blog note: this article has nothing to do with a specific grand jury investigation or report. What’s interesting is that the author describes a nonprofit organization’s overview report of its activities as “modeled as something of a grand jury report.” The grand jury’s reputation grows.
Mankind was my business – charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence were all my business!” – Marley’s ghost, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens
Charity, they say, begins at home.
And if home happens to be the Sonoma Valley – then it would appear one’s charitable community – a “home” with revenues of $113 million annually – rests on a firmly solid foundation.
But appearances can be deceiving.
That’s the message coming from the Sonoma Valley Fund, the local branch of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, which last week released its first-ever overview report on the state of the Valley charitable community.
And, according to the report, a “growing disconnect” is taking place between the scale and complexity of the social, environmental and economic challenges facing the Valley – and the capacities of the nonprofit organizations dedicated to meeting those challenges.
The report’s title is “Hidden in Plain Sight” – a not-so-veiled reference to what is perhaps a reasonably accurate assessment that, despite the nonprofit community’s highly active presence in the Valley, its overarching identity remains something of a mystery to the average resident – and probably to the average donor, as well.
Modeled as something of a grand jury report with better pie charts, the handful of volunteer SVF researchers who put together the report spent hundreds of hours between them on a quest to both quantify and qualify the nonprofit community and the philanthropists who keep its Good Samaritan engines running. By studying the public tax returns which individual nonprofits are required to file – citing funds raised, budgets spent and overall operational finances – the Sonoma Valley Fund has delivered a detailed overview of “Sonoma Valley and the charitable sector that serves us.”
It’s certainly an effort worth commending – not least of which because, given the size of the Valley’s nonprofit universe, it’s about time someone’s tried to put the whole shebang into context.
The Sonoma Valley Fund makes no claims that “Hidden in Plain Sight” is a flawless document that has an answer to every philanthropic need from Kenwood to Sears Point. But it does provide some interesting statistics – and, more importantly, raises much-needed questions. Here are three:
The percentage of Valley residents over age 65 “matured” by nearly 4 percent in the last six years to a whopping 23 percent. Yet, is the 1 percent of funds raised for senior services by the Valley’s nonprofits ever going to meet the growing demand? (By comparison “animal protection” services raised 1.8 percent!)
From 2009 to 2014, the percentage of Valley families living in poverty went up by 7.2 percent to an alarming 19.2 percent. (That’s right, one in five local families lives in poverty.) But only 14 percent of funds raised in the nonprofit community went toward “basic human needs/poverty,” according to the report. In a community as generous as ours, why are poverty services – i.e., FISH, La Luz, Nuestra Voz, Sonoma Home Meals and Sonoma Overnight Support – funded that far below the level of need?
Crisis, what crisis? For two years now, we’ve heard that the “housing crisis” is bringing the community to its knees. But, according to the report, “it is striking that no organization in Sonoma exists to address low-income housing or housing policy.” Why is that, and shouldn’t we have one?
May 18, 2017
Sonoma Index-Tribune
By Jason Walsh

[Orange County] San Clemente Drone Ordinance

A new drone ordinance will be put into place on June 1. Here is what you need to know before you fly your drone in San Clemente.

SAN CLEMENTE, CA — Want to fly your drones around San Clemente? You better read this first.
On May 2, 2017, the San Clemente City Council approved a new ordinance regarding the use of unmanned aircraft (UA), commonly referred to as “drones,” in response to the 2015-2016 Orange County Grand Jury Report, “Drones: Know Before You Fly.”
An increased drone-usage in 2016 has led officials to decide that unregulated drone usage will pose significant threats to public safety and privacy in the future, according to the report.
The City of San Clemente provided its response to the findings and recommendations required of the Orange County Grand Jury in October of 2016, including an ordinance adoption that regulates drone operating requirements on the time, place, and manner of drone operations.
The City’s UA ordinance will go into effect on June 1, 2017.
The City’s ordinance complies with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) finalized notice of proposed rule-making entitled “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” This imposes operating and certification requirements to allow small unmanned aircraft systems in the National Airspace System for non-hobby purposes and non-recreational purposes.
Numerous instances of drone interference with fire and emergency services have been documented, city officials said in recent release.
The City of San Clemente agrees with the FAA that the City Council has police powers and authority to issue regulations related to land use, zoning, privacy, trespass, and law enforcement operations.
May 18, 2017
San Clemente Patch
By Ashley Ludwig

[Solano County] Solano adult literacy program earns praise, but relies ‘too much’ on written word

FAIRFIELD — The Solano County grand jury has high praise for the Library Adult Literacy Program.
“The 2016-17 Solano County grand jury found that the county Library Adult Literacy Program has undertaken a valuable and much-needed service in our community and should be commended for its efforts,” the report released in early April states.
Then the grand jury tossed in a bit of a curve. The report recommends the literacy program “explore additional communication options which do not involve reading.”
The odd concept linked to a literacy program was not meant to be directed at the teaching methodology, but rather as a broader approach to attracting more adults to the program.
“The Solano County Library Adult Literacy Program relies mostly on written communication to reach illiterate adults,” the report points out, following up with the recommendation to use such things as speakers at organization events – such as Parent-Teacher Association meetings, and community and neighborhood gatherings.
The grand jury suggested the program also could increase its visibility with booths at sporting activities and countywide festivals, as well as placing pictorial posters at transportation hubs, make public service announcements and better utilize social media.
It also noted in a separate recommendation to review promotional material and make sure it is placed on the library website.
Bonnie Katz, director of library services, said she was pleased with the report, adding it is always valuable to have another set of eyes on the program. She also thought the grand jury’s thoughts on outreach efforts were on point and offered good suggestions.
“I think our literacy program is well-respected in our community,” Katz said.
What was most clear in the grand jury report was the opinion that the Library Adult Literacy Program is essential, linking the need to improve these skills and higher educational standards as critical to fighting poverty and crime.
“Targeting adult illiteracy is critical as it empowers a person’s ability to provide life skill tools in overcoming poverty and sustaining a self-worth attitude,” the report states.
“Thirty percent of adults with household incomes at or below the federal poverty line do not have a high school credential. . . . Seventy-five percent of the inmates in the California justice system did not finish high school or are classified as having low literacy,” the report states.
Moreover, children of illiterate parents are “twice as likely to also be illiterate,” the report states.
In addition to varying its outreach to adults who could benefit from the program, the grand jury also recommends increasing the number of volunteer tutors by working with senior organizations and residential communities, as well as reaching out to nonprofits, churches, area employers and service groups.
The grand jury also suggests “working with local colleges to create volunteer/intern programs.”
The final recommendation is to expand “the peer support mentor program to interface with prospective and existing students on a regular basis.” The report states there is only one mentor at this time. Katz said efforts have already started on this area.
The report notes that volunteers express enthusiasm about their experiences working in the program.
The grand jury also points out that the library makes an effort to follow up with the participants by implementing a tracking system to follow student and program success.
The literacy program was initiated in 1994 and has served more than 6,200 adults who wanted to improve their reading or writing skills.
Katz said the participants who have come through the program do so for many, many reasons.
“Some of them want to help their children in school, some want to help their grandchildren,” Katz said. “Some want to pass the citizenship test.”
May 18, 2017
Fairfield Daily Republic
By Todd R. Hansen