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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

FLOW wrests Felton water system away from Cal-Am for a paltry $10 million, Assemblyman John Laird peddles clever car-tax-for-parks scheme, King Street considered for bike-friendly makeover and Sacramento lawmakers prepare to raid state transportation fund--again.

Victory for FLOW

It was a little like winning the Superbowl--if your team is undersized, chronically underfunded and just started playing ball six years ago. On Friday, a small group of Felton activists finally wrested control of their water system away from California-American Water after six years of bitter fighting--and for less than half Cal-Am's original asking price. The water system, which serves 1,330 customers, is now set to be handed over to the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) for $10.5 million, pending approval by the district's board of directors at its Thursday meeting.

Depending on who's doing the talking, this is a victory for both sides. The water district, at the urging of the citizens group Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW), launched an eminent domain lawsuit against Cal-Am last year, arguing that the greater public good would be served if it owned the water system. After SLVWD won that argument, a June 2 hearing was set to determine how much the district would pay for the system and the watershed land. Cal-Am wanted $25 million. SLVWD wanted to pay $7.6 million. They reached the compromise figure after SLVWD agreed to not develop any watershed land or cut any timber. Jim Mosher, chief legal adviser to FLOW, thinks this represents a victory for his small grassroots organization.

"The settlement means that Cal-Am had to go down $15 million, and we only had to go up $2 million," says Mosher. "So the water district decided to just seal the deal, because at these jury trials you never know what can happen."

Cal-Am spokesman Kevin Tilden, however, says his company got the best end of the deal. Once the potential for development and the sale of high-value lumber in the watershed was taken out of the equation, Cal-Am tagged the water system at just under $20 million, while SLVWD had pegged it at just over $5 million. So the $10.5 million figure, plus the $2.9 million in debt for a treatment plant, ended up being closer to Cal-Am's offer, argues Tilden.

"It's a very substantial settlement, and I'm sure Felton homeowners could send their kids to UC with the money they'll be paying for this bond," says Tilden, referring to the $11 million bond approved by Felton voters in 2005, which will pay for the water system. "People are committed to government ownership at any cost, and they got it at a very high cost."

Regardless of the public relations spin--and the fuzzy math--that both sides apply to the deal, it's clear to Nu_z that none if it would have been possible without the organizing strength of FLOW. The small citizen's group pestered Cal-Am so persistently that other watersheds around the state began to look a lot more attractive, according to Tilden. Mosher admits Cal-Am probably ended up making more money than it deserved to from the sale of the water system, but at this point he's just happy to chalk up a victory for public ownership of water.

"We know we're paying more than it was worth, but it was a major effort just to get it at all," says Mosher. "We're very, very pleased. In fact, we're ecstatic."

The SLVWD will vote on Cal-Am's offer at its next board of directors meeting, Thursday, June 5, 7:30pm at the Highlands Park Senior Center in Ben Lomond, 8500 Highway 9.

King Street Bike Plan

The two bike-related Mission Street deaths of the past eight months have put two things in the minds of drivers and cyclists. First, that riding through the intersection of Bay and Mission is akin to barreling into the caldera of an active volcano; and second, that something needs to be done before more people die.

Soon a new deal will be on the table for an alternative route on Mission Street's neighbor, King Street. Palo Alto-based traffic engineer John Ciccarelli expects to complete a concept plan sometime this week that will transform King Street into a safe and attractive alternative for cyclists who don't want to ride down the congested and historically treacherous Mission thoroughfare.

Ciccarelli's mission got the rubber stamp on March 12 when the City Transportation Commission, an advisory body to the Public Works Department, voted to authorize a study exploring ways to make King Street more inviting to bike traffic.

Ciccarelli was careful to say that the plan, which includes a variety of options, wasn't completely finished. But he did say making King Street safer could be a matter of changing parking signs or installing roundabouts or bike lanes. Or it could involve the creation of a bicycle boulevard, a street with regularly placed posts or barricades that make through travel impossible for vehicles but allow cyclists to fly through unimpeded.

But don't get too excited about King Street becoming a bicycle artery just yet--the plan still requires neighborhood approval. Santa Cruz Transportation Manager Jim Burr says the Public Works Department just wants to offer the residents of King Street the option to make their street into a place where cyclists can ride safely. If residents approve one of the options, the plan will be brought before the City Council for another stamp of approval.

"At the very least it will go out to the neighborhood and come back to the transportation commission," said Burr. "The end product will be contingent upon how much consensus we have as a community."

Laird's Parks Tax

Someone is finally sticking his neck out to help solve California's $15 billion budget shortfall.

District 27 Assemblymember John Laird, who serves as chairman of the budget committee, wants to raise the annual vehicle registration fee by $10 and use the money to bolster the sagging state parks system, which faces a $1.2 billion deferred maintenance backlog and staffing shortages. Under the plan, all state residents would be able to visit the parks for free.

Laird's plan is clearly an example of the "creative and balanced solutions" everyone in Sacramento keeps yakking about. But that doesn't mean it will be an easy sell.

The problem, politically speaking, is that he is proposing raising taxes--and not just any tax. Gov. Schwarzenegger was essentially elected in 2003 on his promise to revoke then-Gov. Davis' restoration of the vehicle license fee. Ever since then, almost every Democrat who talks about the budget mentions the $6 billion or so in revenue that a reinstated vehicle license fee could bring the state. The registration fee and license fee are basically the same for the average car owner, so Republicans, perhaps sensing a Trojan Horse in this warm and fuzzy parks proposal, may block this attempt during budget negotiations. Laird promises to have some nice long talks with the "read my lips, no new taxes" naysayers over the next few weeks.

"A private poll done by the State Parks Foundation shows that 74 percent of Californians support this proposal," claims Laird. "Almost two-thirds of Republicans support this, according to the poll. People want us to be creative, flexible and come to compromises. We'll be working on the Republican members to let them know this is a popular proposal."

The idea seems pretty sweet for Santa Cruz residents, surrounded as we are on all sides by state parks. The entrance fee would now be zilch, and $282 million a year would be raised to hire more rangers and fix up historic buildings, bathrooms, trails and the like. Laird thinks 10 bucks a year is a small price to pay for maintaining the quality of life for state residents.

"What this does is provide a stable source of funding for the parks. We're $120 million a year below parks maintenance expenditures. Paying for those needs now would prevent problems from getting worse over time and would begin to pay down that over-$1 billion deferred maintenance backlog," says Laird. "Unless we have a stable source of funding, we can't add to our parks system and maintain that quality of life while California grows by 10 million people over the next 25 years."

Sounds good, but it's not like the Parks Department is the only state agency feeling the pinch this year. Nu_z wonders if perhaps more attention shouldn't be paid to restoring the Health and Human Services budget, which could be chopped by as much as $1.4 billion under the governor's proposal. After all, taking a hike through the parks is great, but having health insurance is a lot better. Laird assures Nu_z that problem is also being addressed.

"I wouldn't say we chose parks over health and human services. Just today in the budget subcommittee we restored some of the draconian cuts the governor has proposed," says Laird. "The key here is that the Parks Department budget is much smaller. This is a permanent, long-term, relatively small fix for parks. Now we can just take that off the table. We're still going to need a major increase in revenue for education, health and human services. We are going to propose that over the next few weeks."

Arrrrnold's Way

Sacramento politicians are dusting off their peg legs and cutlasses in preparation for the annual budget-time ritual of fund raiding. This year's booty: A public transportation fund treasure chest of $1.4 billion. The hapless victims: Local bus agencies, such as the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (SCMTD), which rely on the fund to replace older vehicles.

In Santa Cruz County, $3.2 million of state funding could disappear with the stroke of a pen if Gov. Schwarzenegger's May budget proposal is upheld. SCMTD General Manager Les White was hoping to use that money to replace an aging fleet of 30 ParaCruz vans that shuttle the disabled around the county. The vans were scheduled to be replaced this year, and the delay could mean higher maintenance costs and more interrupted trips due to breakdowns.

The agony doesn't end there. In the desperate scramble to plug the $17 billion hole in the state budget, the governor's office is also proposing slashing payouts for Medi-Cal recipients by over $600 million. These two budget maneuvers seemed to be unrelated until Nu_z caught wind that the local nonprofit Medi-Cal provider, Central Coast Alliance for Health, was responding to a potential $14 million to 16 million in budget cuts by rolling back its funding to transport dialysis patients between their homes and the hospital. Now, SCMTD is being asked to pick up some of the slack. After all, driving after a blood transfusion is probably not a great idea. But remember, the state just took away the funding SCMTD was going to use to replace this aging fleet of vans. White is less than pleased.

"These are folks in life-sustaining circumstances. They have to get to these dialysis services to stay alive," says White. "For us, that means a 25 percent increase in ParaCruz service with a fleet that is in need of replacement now. So we're increasing our service loads, therefore wearing out this aging fleet even faster, with no hope of replacing the vans in sight."

It's only a small peek into what's in store for the state over the next couple of years as a confluence of budget cuts end up pinching the neediest citizens from all sides. In this case, the situation isn't too dire yet. Alan Mckay, executive director of the Central Coast Alliance for Health, says his nonprofit will continue to provide rides to dialysis patients who are unable to drive for medical reasons, and SCMTD will be able to help out the other patients for only $6 per trip, assuming the vans don't break down.

White is happy to help out. Yet his vans can only hold out for so long as they sag under the pressure of providing over 100 rides a day. Working together on the local level will only go so far, says White. What is really needed is meaningful budget reform in Sacramento.

"We're very concerned the level of cuts are so deep it is impacting the health and welfare of the people, and at some point in time the state is going to have to come to grips with its financial problem," says White. "The state needs to look beyond the budget of this year and figure out how to restructure the budget, both on the spending side and on the revenue side."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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