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March 2010

Baffling the Riffraff

A comparison of local rate-raising notices required under Proposition 218

BY LIONEL EMDE, RIPTIDE CORRESPONDENT

Homeowners in Pacifica should check their mailboxes for a jolly green notice from the City of Pacifica. It’s green, not in announcing some new environmental initiative, but from an increase in the flow of money from our pockets to the city’s. We should be grateful that we’re getting a notice at all, and it is the result of Proposition 218.
 
Under the rubric of Proposition 218, public agencies must notice ratepayers as to increases in such things as sewer charge increases, water rates, garbage rates, and other assessments, fees, or taxes on property. These notices are to go out 45 days before the rate increase, with the option offered to the ratepayer of protesting in writing. If a majority of ratepayers protest, the rate hike is not implemented.
 
What’s the California Legislative Analyst’s take on this law?
 
Current Practice. Local governments charge fees to pay for many services to their residents. Some of these fees pay for services to property, such as garbage collection and sewer service. Fees are also called ''charges."

Proposed Requirements for Property-Related Fees. This measure (Proposition 218) would restrict local governments' ability to charge ''property-related" fees. (Fees for water, sewer, and refuse collection service probably meet the measure's definition of a property-related fee. Gas and electric fees and fees charged to land developers are specifically exempted.)

Public agencies, primarily large water districts in Southern California, fought the implementation of Proposition 218 for years in the courts after the voters passed it in 1996. They lost, and we as ratepayers are supposed to have this protection as settled law.
 
The Water District
As you read these words, your mailbox may contain the City of Pacifica’s jolly green notice for "Proposed Sewer Service Charges." In January 2010, North Coast County Water District (NCCWD) sent out a similar notice for water rate increases. What are the differences?
 
The NCCWD notice gets high marks, with one notable exception. In its letter, it mentions its analysis as required by Proposition 218, a list of reasons for the proposed increase, a table of tiered rate increases, and an average rate increase by tier of usage. It also details how protests may be made and received. What it doesn’t allow is protest by email, which is a ridiculous denial of how business is done in the 21st century. Indeed, it may be seen as a deliberate suppression of legitimate protest by property owners who may be struggling with pay cuts, a job loss, or even foreclosure of their home. Considering that NCCWD increased water rates for single-family residences from 13 percent to 24 percent, based on amount of water used, the least it could do is allow email protests. Contrast those fat increases with last year’s Consumer Price Index rise of 2.7 percent.
 
An Obscure City Process
The City of Pacifica’s sewer charge notice is a study in obscuration. It advises ratepayers: "The City calculates water consumption...for each ...customer ... in Section 6-6.407 ... which is reprinted on the back of this notice." After flipping it over and puzzling over what appears to be incomplete information, I realized it actually starts on the same side, right below "Your Opportunity to Get Involved."
 
In this section, recipients are advised: "Instructions on filing a written protest can be found on the City website or at City Hall." Why aren’t they explained on the flyer? On the opposite side of the notice, there is a phone number for City Hall, but that isn’t a legitimate protest vehicle, either. Pity the poor receptionist at City Hall who’ll be fielding tens if not hundreds of phone calls asking what it all means. It would seem that a lot of time and effort could be saved if the protest process were fully explained on the flyer, and just maybe that’s the point of obscuration.
 
If one has a computer and goes to the city’s Web site and clicks on "2010.11 Proposed Sewer Rate Increase and Information" for instruction on how to protest or even figure out what the hell’s going on, one would have to scroll forward to page 8 out of 10 of a .pdf document to get to "Guidelines for the Submission and Tabulation of Protests." The prohibition of emailed protests is there, like NCCWD’s, but the city has an additional barrier in the requirement of "...the original signature of the record owner with respect to the property identified on the protest."
 
Oh, and don’t forget the secret decoder ring available only at the sewage treatment plant in the dead of night at the lower entrance, using the password "Swordfish." OK, I made up that part. But somewhere, Franz Kafka laughs at the citzenry of Pacifica. If anyone thinks that the public’s involvement is really wanted, you’d have to love mazes, and believe in puzzles as a means of communications.

Intercity High-Speed Train Beats Air Shuttle

BEIJING, MARCH 26--Transportation experts in the U.S. say that a trip between cities that are 500 miles apart or less should be served by rail rather than air. A new high-speed rail link between two inland Chinese cities that are 314 miles illustrates this point; the train has cut travel times so dramatically that all competing air services on the route have been suspended. The suspension of flights between the gritty industrial city of Zhengzhou and Xian, home of the Terracotta Warriors, came just 48 days after the express railway began operations, the official Xinhua news agency said last week. The trains on this railway run at a top speed of 350 km per hour, making the trip a little less than two hours. By contrast, flying takes just over an hour. But the airport in Xian is located at least an hour away from downtown. Before the railway opened, Joy Air, one of the domestic airlines flying the route, managed to sell an average of more than 60 percent of seats for the route, Xinhua said. Zhengzhou airport confirmed that all flights to and from Xian had now stopped, the report added. China is spending billions of dollars on a network of high-speed railways, including one from Beijing to the country’s financial capital Shanghai, posing a challenge to airlines which had profited from China’s vast size and slow roads and trains. By 2012, China will have more than 13,000 km of high-speed railway, Xinhua said. (Thomson Reuters; Zinhua News Agency)


Sex Survey: Bad Spelling & Grammar Strike Out

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GOOD ENGLISH SCORES

Maxim magazine's recent sex survey of women asked, "Which is a deal-breaker via text or email?" 44.4 percent—higher than any other choice given—"spelling and grammatical errors." Here's the breakdown:


Use of smiley faces or emoticons: 8.2%
Excessive exclamation marks: 18.7%
Spelling and grammar errors: 44.4%
Inappropriate jokes: 24.8%
Sexual requests: 24.8%
Nothing. I cut people slack via text/email: 33.6%

RIGHT FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE

Who Heisted Homer Harley?

Homer Harley 03282010
On Thursday, March 25, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., someone decided that they needed my motorcycle more than I did. After kicking in my front door, they proceeded downstairs to my garage, opened the garage door, and loaded my bike onto a truck. I assume they loaded it onto something else because the battery was dead and someone might notice the Homer Harley coasting down the street not making any noise. I live back in Park Pacifica on a "quiet" street. For those of you who feel you're safe: Think again! It's recession time and creative ways of making a buck are rearing their ugly heads.
 
I've owned this bike since 1997, bought it new, and went through the customizing renovation. It is a 1997 custom Dyna Wide-Glide. If you see Homer in your neighborhood, please call the Pacifica Police at 650-738-7314 and let them know. For a variety of reasons, I'm betting this bike is still in town.

JIM WAGNER


Caltrain Going Electric: Greener, Cheaper, Faster

Caltrain set to approve plans to electrify railroad
By Mike Rosenberg
San Mateo County Times
Posted: 03/27/2010 08:55:54 PM PDT
Updated: 03/27/2010 08:55:55 PM PDT
After 10 years of study, Caltrain officials on Thursday will approve plans to electrify the railroad from San Francisco to San Jose, setting the stage for quicker, cheaper and greener trains within five years. The board of directors said it expects to certify both the state and federal environmental reports for the $1.23 billion project, which will allow Caltrain to expand to 114 trains from 90 each weekday. The project's approval will allow Caltrain to dip into two high-speed-rail funding sources: the $9.95 billion Proposition 1A bond and $2.25 billion in federal stimulus grants. The California High-Speed Rail Authority agreed to share some of its money since it needs the Caltrain tracks to be electric before it can run bullet trains from San Francisco to San Jose on their way to Los Angeles. And Caltrain cannot on its own afford the electrification project, which includes $785 million for infrastructure such as overhead wires and $440 million for new, zippier electric rail cars. Caltrain has stacked up $709 million in local, state and federal funds but still needs $516 million from the rail authority to fund the project. In addition to securing the last chunks of funding, spokeswoman Christine Dunn said planners still need to complete the remaining 65 percent of the engineering details and select a construction firm before beginning work. Construction is expected to last three years, and the new railroad should be up and running by 2015, she said. Both Caltrain commuters and anyone passing through the 52-mile area from San Francisco to San Jose will notice major changes. For one, the trains and tracks will take on a more modern, sleeker look and feel. Emissions spewed by the trains will diminish by 90 percent. Trains will start and stop quicker, allowing for faster rides, stops at more stations and the ability to squeeze more train service into the daily schedule. Operating costs will go down, decreasing the likelihood of further budget problems that have historically led to fare increases and, most recently, service cuts. A new safety system that uses global positioning system technology will be installed, and safety work will be done at 47 roadway crossings. Consultant reports concluded that the project and its construction would not significantly harm the environment — including aspects such as noise, aesthetics and air quality. Federal authorities reviewed the plans and reached the same conclusion in December, while state officials required only the third-party review.

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.

Pacifica School District Picks New Superintendent

The Pacifica School District's Board of Trustees is delighted to announce the selection of Dr. Wendy S. Tukloff to replace retiring superintendent Susan Vickrey. The board will make its official announcement at a special board meeting on Wednesday, March 31. Dr. Tukloff will begin on July 1, 2010. Board President Mike O’Neill said:

“In looking for a superintendent, the Board of Trustees wanted to continue the district’s strong emphasis on the development, evolution, and support of our curriculum. The ongoing struggle we are facing due to budget cuts is for us to maintain the integrity that our community, families, and staff have come to expect from the Pacifica School District. Wendy’s experience, knowledge of, and articulation of today’s cutting-edge curriculum was very evident in her interviews with the Board and the community review panel. Wendy’s background in both a large urban district as well as a smaller suburban one gives her an insight that is valuable and needed in today’s world. Her experience with diverse populations will enable the Pacifica School District to serve all facets of our now growing student population. Wendy’s knowledge of curriculum, together with the experience of our Chief Business Official Josie Peterson, will provide the Pacifica School District the leadership team to guide, coach, and direct the 21st-century learning environment we wish to give our children. The Board of Trustees welcomes Dr. Wendy Tukloff to Pacifica and the Pacifica education community.”

The Board of Trustees retained executive search firm RJ Gatti Associates to conduct an extensive statewide candidate search. The district received 34 applications in response to its posting, which the board eventually narrowed to a pool of six finalists. The finalists were interviewed by the board and a panel of community members. The panel included three parents, the president of the Laguna Salada Education Association, a representative of the California School Employee Association, and a district principal.

Dr. Tukloff is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received both her B.A. and M.Ed. She received her doctorate from California State University, Fresno, and the University of California, Davis. Dr. Tukloff is presently an assistant superintendent in the San Francisco Unified School District. Previously, she worked in the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District and Fresno Unified School District. Throughout her career she has worked as a classroom teacher (grades 1, 4, and 5), reading specialist, vice principal, elementary school principal, director for professional development programs, and assistant superintendent. Members of the school community will be invited to meet Dr. Tukloff at a district-wide open house later in the spring.


Vallemar Neighbors Fight to Save Palm Trees

BY ELIZABETH SENDIL, SPECIAL TO RIPTIDE

On Palm Sunday, March 28, in a David vs. Goliath face-off, a group of children and concerned citizens gathered in a Pacifica neighborhood for a book recycling and fundraising effort to save 11 century-old palm trees from being cut down by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Kids4Change, a nonprofit children’s group that performs charitable services and funding, voted unanimously to make saving the palm trees their current cause. They rallied Sunday with other children and adults to raise awareness about the fate of the trees they love.

These Canary Island palms were planted in this urban forest circa 1906, more than 50 years before the city was incorporated. Stunning in appearance, with large fronds that drape majestically from the crown, the trees are threatened not by disease but by poor urban planning. Though the trees are only a third of the way through their estimated 300-year lifespan, Pacifica’s Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission voted to allow PG&E to cut down the first three of these trees because the city does not have the money to move utility poles or underground the wires, which are at risk of becoming a safety hazard. The core issue is that the trees have grown close enough to PG&E’s high-voltage lines to present a fire and electrocution hazard.

Citizens argue that this was a foreseeable consequence of placing lines directly above the trees, which naturally have grown. PG&E is not willing to fund environmentally friendly solutions, such as redirecting lines, extending poles, or undergrounding wires. In the past 50 years, hundreds of trees have been removed from the rarefied tree-laden neighborhood of Vallemar. Many trees were sick or at the end of their lifespans. But the remaining healthy palms are at risk only because PG&E placed power lines directly in their line of growth, and the severe trimming required will kill them.

Concerned citizens and Kids4Change have joined with local nonprofit Vallemar Conservators, which has been working for decades to save and replace the lost grandeur of Vallemar's urban forest. This coalition is working to raise awareness of the situation in hopes of finding a solution other than tree removal.The kids and adults are collecting donations of books and money for the cause. The book sale is on April 17, in the same neighborhood, and all proceeds go to saving the trees. To learn more about the palm tree crisis, go to http://www.vallemarpalms.com. And to donate or learn more about Kids4Change, please visit http://www.kids4change.org. All money raised between now and April 17 goes to saving the palm trees.

Recycle your old books and help save trees! Kids 4 Change, a local charity composed primarily of children ages 5 to 8, is running a book drive and sale. Dust off those old books and drop them at 119 Berendos in Vallemar, Pacifica, between now and April 17. Books will be sold for $1 each on April 17 at 119 Berendos. Proceeds will go to save several 100-year-old heritage palm trees in Pacifica, and any remaining books will be donated to Pacifica School Volunteers, Pacifica Resource Center, and/or local schools.

Information: http://www.kids4change.org

Donations to help save the palm trees: http://www.kids4change/donations.php



Another Go at Kicking the Can Down the Road

Pacifica’s second attempt at selling bonds to cover retirement liability
 
BY LIONEL EMDE, RIPTIDE CORRESPONDENT
 
In the last item on the March 22, 2010, City Council meeting agenda, city staff informed the council that the long-delayed sale of Pacifica’s pension obligation bonds may occur in May 2010.
 
The bonds are intended to lower the interest rate paid by the city for its unfunded pension liability to city employees, and to put the debt on the long-term balance sheet. Currently, according to Pacifica's director of administrative services Ann Ritzma, the city is paying CalPERS (the system responsible for retirement plans of most California city workers) 7.75 percent interest on the city’s unfunded liability. The projected interest rate on the bonds is 5 percent to 6 percent, resulting in a possible savings of between $80,000 and $130,000. There is no guarantee of that interest rate and the council could cancel the bond sale if interest rates become too high to result in any savings.
 
As of July 1, 2007, the city’s unfunded retirement liability that this bond issuance was to address was just under $17 million. The necessity of refinancing the debt is evident in CalPERS reports on city retirement plans, because payments made by the city have not kept up with increasing retirement plan obligations. Additional unfunded liabilities have accrued since then, presumably at a faster rate, as salaries and benefits have risen. That $17 million is a frightening amount when one considers that, for example, it represents approximately 60 percent of the city’s annual $28 million general fund.
 
The first attempt to issue and sell these bonds in 2008 was aborted when the bond market collapsed following the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy. This writer described the situation in a 2009 PACIFICA RIPTIDE ARTICLE

Pacifica is but a microcosm of the fiscal situation in the state of California. Total unfunded pension liabilities owed by all public agencies in the state have been estimated at $60 billion, or three times as much as the current state budget deficit. What is the sustainable solution to this tidal wave of debt being incurred by the city of Pacifica? We shall see what the first budget study session holds for our fiscal future when the budget process begins in April.
 

Surfer Showdown @ Nixon's La Casa Pacifica

In our continuing quest for all things named Pacifica (a joint project with Beachcomber C. Urchins at the Pacifica Tribune), Niki Wise reports that Richard M. Nixon called his San Clemente beach house "La Casa Pacifica." This item prompted Jeff "Bags" Bagshaw to take this stroll down memory lane:

We used to surf Trestles long before Nixon ever moved there. It used to be the Cotton family estate, with an Olympic-size pool and acres of mowed lawn overlooking the beach. The Coast Guard had a small post there and shared a boundary with the Camp Pendleton marine base. We used to be able to walk semi-safely in on the Coast Guard side of the fence to get to the beach, the only other route being a much longer walk down the train tracks from the school. Too many stories to tell there. So Nixon "buys" the land and covers the pool and puts a putting green in so we were forced to walk the tracks. But we couldn't go if he was there. More than a couple of times we were walking down the tracks at 4 a.m. only to have dudes in black suits appear in front of us with a smile and a gun to tell us to turn around. Sometimes we'd walk back a way and paddle down if it was dark enough. There are four main breaks at Trestles: Cottons at the north, Boundaries (for obvious reasons), then Uppers and Lowers. Lowers was the prize when it was big and good.


Voyage of the Plastiki: Pacific Garbage Patch

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Ian Wilson in Jake Sigg's Nature News: On March 20, PLASTIKI, a catamaran made from plastic drink bottles, set sail from San Francisco, headed for Sydney, Australia. The crew hopes to draw media attention to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the 100-million-ton plastic stew in the North Pacific Gyre that is twice the size of Texas. At the same time, they are drawing attention to the insanity of bottled water. We pay only 1/3 cent per gallon for our extremely high-quality Hetch Hetchy tap water here on the San Francisco Peninsula. Pepsico Corporation charges $1.50 for a 20-ounce bottle of its Aquafina brand water ("purified tap water" from the Fresno reservoir), which works out to $9.60 per gallon, three times the price of gas. PLASTIKI'S FACEBOK PAGE


Help Protect Newborn Harbor Seal Pups

It's spring, and harbor seal pups are being born on Bay Area beaches and sand bars. Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary advises beachgoers against interacting with seal pups they may find. Newborn seal pups could suffer permanent harm if mistaken for orphans and accidentally separated from their mothers. Mother harbor seals sometimes leave their pups on the beach while they forage at sea, and return to reclaim and nurse their pups if left alone. Each year, healthy seal pups are separated from their mothers by people who mistake them for orphans. The Farallones sanctuary advises beachgoers to report suspected orphaned pups to a park ranger, or to call The Marine Mammal Center, 415-289-SEAL (7325). Seals are also federally protected animals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and to interfere with one could incur penalties. For information, contact maryjane.schramm@noaa.gov

Watch Out for Migrating Whales

Gulf of The Farallones National Marine Sanctuary advises boaters and kayakers to watch out for and steer clear of whales, which migrate into the San Francisco Bay Area in large numbers during the spring. Gray whales are at a particularly high risk of collisions with vessels, as they often travel near shore and may even wander into the bay itself. San Francisco Bay and Tomales Bay always have a few springtime gray whale visitors. Whales are in the area year-round, but springtime sees most nearshore gray whales, including females with newborn calves slowly making their way back north from Baja calving grounds. Watch for their blow as they surface, which looks like a puff of smoke, low and bushy. Maintain at least 300 feet distance while paralleling them. Never cut across their path of travel, or separate a whale cow from her calf. For information, contact maryjane.schramm@noaa.gov