Oct. 24

Los Angeles Daily News on the county and city of Los Angeles having pension problems

As pension costs continue to consume increasing portions of state, county, city and school district budgets, policymakers will continue to find themselves forced to find cuts elsewhere. A recent report released by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research presented case studies on how the crowding-out has played out and may play out in Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles.

Since 2002-03, L.A. County pension expenditures have grown from $326 million to about $1.5 billion this year. Proportionally, as a share of operating expenditures, this translates to an increase from 3 percent to 8.9 percent this year. Much of this came at the expense of "Public Assistance," the category that includes In-Home Supportive Services and foster care, according to the report, that saw its share of the budget reduced from 37.6 percent in 2002-03 to 32.7 percent in 2015-16.

By 2029-30, depending on the funded status of the county pension system, additional pension contributions could displace between $364 million and $1.2 billion in county spending, the latter being greater than the combined projected spending on Trial Court Operations, Public Defender, Parks and Recreation and Public Health-Children's Medical Services.

The city has seen even tougher consequences from crowd-out. Pension spending has nearly tripled since 2003-04, from 4.3 percent to 12 percent this year. Unless pension-funding ratios improve, the city could see pension expenditures reach 16.3 percent by 2029-30. Since 2003-04, Cultural and Recreational Services, Health and Sanitation and Public Works have seen significant reductions. If pension costs continue to rise, the city would likely have to make across-the-board cuts of 4 percent to accommodate it.

Just how bad things get will depend a lot on how their respective pension fund investments perform. Currently, even assuming rates of return above 7 percent a year, it's plausible both pension systems will find themselves significantly underfunded a decade from now, with taxpayers on the hook for the shortfall.

Whether L.A. leaders have the will to correct the issue isn't clear, but absent any meaningful reforms, taxpayers are likely to continue paying more than ever and getting less for it.

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Oct. 22

Santa Cruz Sentinel on Gov. Brown showing political courage with key vetoes

Gov. Jerry Brown, soon to enter his last year in office, is ending well.

Using his veto power, Brown upheld due process rights for students accused of sexual assault, stopped multibillion dollar telecom companies from getting carte blanche to put cellphone antennas anywhere they want on taxpayer-owned public property and rejected a bill to take disputes over water rights away from the State Water Resources Control Board.

The cell antenna bill was the most flagrant sellout by the Legislature. Hundreds of cities and nearly 50 counties were up in arms, faced with losing substantial revenue — at least $30 million a year statewide and likely much more.

Even more galling, communities would have been stripped of bargaining power to get companies to provide high speed service to poor neighborhoods even though the wealthy ones that generate most of their profits.

As one example of potential harm, the law would have given the companies priority over cities' and counties' own plans for public safety communications equipment on public property.

In his veto message, Brown mentioned the questionable legality of taking away communities' right to control their own property, among other valid criticisms.

Lawmakers who pushed this bill, SB 649 by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, should be ashamed of themselves. It was a direct sellout to a powerful industry at the expense of constituents.

While less sweeping in scope, AB 313 by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, was another example of a powerful lobby — this time Big Agriculture — throwing its weight around. It aimed to curb the ability of the State Water Resources Control Board to enforce legal limits on diversion of water from rivers and other waterways.

When water was plentiful, a little extra pumped here and there from public supplies wasn't a big deal. But during the drought, the water board got serious about tracking allocations and enforcing limits based on water rights. The board has staff that painstakingly investigates claims, calling on scientists and engineers as well as attorneys. Big Ag wants someone else to decide what's legal or not.

Brown acknowledged in his veto message that the board's hearing process might need improvement and asked the Environmental Protection Agency to review it. But the state Supreme Court in 2011, in a case brought by the California Farm Bureau Federation, found that due process was provided.

Brown also vetoed a bill that would have codified Obama-era policies on campus sexual assault.

The Obama Administration in 2011 provided "guidance" to universities to create Title IX kangaroo courts or risk losing federal funds. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is moving to replace that guidance with new regulation restoring due process.

But the Legislature passed a law explicitly "to protect the Obama-era guidelines," said Santa Barbara state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the bill's sponsor. Adherence would be "a condition of receiving (state) financial assistance."

Brown, however, went against the progressive grain, echoing DeVos's concerns in a letter with his veto: "Thoughtful legal minds have increasingly questioned whether federal and state actions to prevent and redress sexual harassment and assault — well-intentioned as they are — have also unintentionally resulted in some colleges' failure to uphold due process for accused students."

Brown said accused students must be granted "the presumption of innocence until the facts speak otherwise" and warned that "depriving any student of higher education opportunities should not be done lightly, or out of fear of losing state or federal funding."

Brown's second term ends next year, so perhaps he feels politically liberated to uphold legal rights to due process protections — even when doing so puts him in agreement with the Trump administration, if only on this principled point. On both the other bills, Brown stood for broad public rights against moneyed interests. It was the governor at his best.

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Oct. 22

The Fresno Bee on PG&E not being only suspect in blame for California wildfires

The fires of October are contained, for the moment. The mop-up has started. Disbelief and adrenalin are giving way to the long, acrid slog of assessing the losses and apportioning blame.

Especially blame. The deadliest week in California fire history had scarcely begun when, on Oct. 10, the Bay Area News Group reported that at least 10 of the first 911 calls in Sonoma County involved downed Pacific Gas and Electric transformers and power lines sparking and arcing.

The news was hardly a surprise. Sped by ferocious Diablo winds gusting at 50 mph or more in some places, multiple fires were roaring in and around the wine country of Northern California. More than 40 fatalities have been confirmed so far, with more than 5,700 structures destroyed, including more than 2,800 homes just in hard-hit Santa Rosa. State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones last week said the loss estimates had topped $1 billion.

Determining the cause will take weeks, if not months. At least two investigations have been launched into the disaster.

Nonetheless, last week brought the first of what will surely be a mountain of lawsuits against PG&E. It has been only six months since the state fined the utility $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that ignited the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador County, scorching nearly 71,000 acres and killing two people.

Wayne and Jennifer Harvell, who lost their home in the Santa Rosa suburb of Coffey Park, charged in San Francisco Superior Court that PG&E failed to properly maintain their power lines, causing the destruction of their home on Mocha Lane and those of more than 1,000 of their neighbors. Coffey Park, a modest neighborhood whose occupants included local firefighters, has been reduced to a moonscape, covered in ash.

But while Northern California waits to learn whether PG&E was negligent again, it may not hurt to think about other factors. Ancillary lessons are suggesting themselves, and from a rebuilding standpoint, they're at least as valuable as figuring out whom to take to court.

There's the question, for instance, of where the fire hazard zones actually are now. Coffey Park, for example, was supposed to be relatively safe.

Fire hazard maps drawn in the early 2000s by state fire officials placed it outside the "very severe" hazard zone to the east, nearer the rural mountains and wildlands. As a result, the development didn't have to comply with the stringent regulations that apply to buildings in riskier fire zones.

In theory, any fire would have to jump the 101 Freeway to reach the manicured grid of tidy tract houses. And yet when the wind kicked up and Tubbs Fire blew in, its sheer force was such that the development was deluged with a sideways rain of flaming embers.

"These fires were burning with a ferocity I haven't seen in 31 years," CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton, who grew up in Sonoma County, told an editorial board member. "The flames were sheeting across the ground like floodwater."

Max Moritz, a fire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, compared the Tubbs Fire to the Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires that regularly rip down the canyons into Southern California suburbs, with the added twist of bigger, denser Northern California vegetation, dried like mega-kindling.

Such fires have not been the norm in cooler, damper NorCal, but the occurrence of such a monster here this year "forces us to consider that this kind of fire could happen in lots of places," Moritz said. That means not only recalculating risk, but remapping for vulnerabilities such as the age of the housing stock, the types of vegetation, and the state of the roads and communications in case of evacuations.

And it will necessarily mean rethinking building codes and insurance in parts of the state that once seemed safer, an expensive proposition. Great swaths of Northern California might have to learn to live like homeowners in fire-prone Malibu.

Which is another takeaway: preparation. One of the most effective ways to protect a neighborhood from wildfire is brush clearance and landscaping to give firefighters a "defensible space."

Forcing homeowners to comply with vegetation management regulations isn't easy, even in high-risk areas, but the state and municipalities may need to tighten such regulations. Last week, the Oakland lethal catastrophe, up to a third of private properties and about half of public properties were out of compliance with clearance regulations, with redwoods dangling over rooftops and shrubbery overgrowing Firesafe Council, a nonprofit working to reduce risk in the Oakland Hills, did an eye-opening compliance spot-check in the area devastated by a deadly fire 26 years ago this weekend. Despite scars from that the grounds of private schools.

Running through these early insights is the question of climate change, and how that should determine development. Almost 40 million people inhabit California, and their presence alone is a fire hazard in a widening share of this state.

Homes with unscreened chimneys and shake shingled roofs and yards shaded with tall juniper trees and fragrant eucalyptus are bombs waiting to go off in the event of a wildfire. Not to mention the 4.2 million or so power poles that bring phone, cable and electricity to Californians.

Even if PG&E's poles were victims of the recent fires, and not causes, their toppling and burning blocked roads, and their failure hampered emergency communications. Making utilities swap out wood for stronger metal or concrete means higher utility bills, as the cost will surely be passed to ratepayers.

Undergrounding power lines is another choice, but that's even more costly. Plus, poles are a key component in the rollout of "5G" wireless networks, which will guide self-driving cars, and connect the "internet of things" to Californians' households.

In other words, long after the lawsuits from these fires have settled, Californians will still be looking at tradeoffs. And wondering, no doubt, whom to blame.

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Oct. 21

The Orange County Register on too many Californians barely scraping by

For all the advantages of the Golden State, far too many Californians are barely scraping by.

Last month, the Supplemental Poverty Measure of the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that approximately one-in-five Californians lived in poverty from 2014 through 2016.

Reaffirming this is the California Poverty Measure, a joint research effort by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, which according to PPIC "accounts for the cost of living and a range of family needs and resources, including social safety net benefits."

By this measure, approximately 19.5 percent of Californians lived in poverty in 2015, including 21.6 percent of children and 27 percent of Latinos and 35.5 percent of adults age 25-64 without a high school diploma.

Notably, according to PPIC, most poor Californians, 79.8 percent, had at least one working adult in their family, most working full time, which unfortunately isn't enough to keep them out of poverty.

A further 19.2 percent were found to be near the poverty threshold. Taken together, about four in 10 Californians were living in or near poverty in 2015.

There are wide geographic disparities with respect to poverty, with Placer and El Dorado Counties having the lowest rates in the state, at 13.1 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively, compared to 24.9 percent in Los Angeles County and 24.8 percent in Santa Cruz County.

Locally, while Los Angeles County shamefully stands out as the home of the highest numbers of poor people in the state, in raw numbers and as a proportion of the overall population, Orange County wasn't far behind, with 21.3 percent living in poverty, compared to 19 percent in Riverside County and 18.7 percent in San Bernardino County.

To the extent that there is a bright side, from 2011 to 2015, the poverty rate declined from 21.8 percent to 19.5 percent, and the proportion living in "deep poverty" has fallen from 6.3 percent to 5.5 percent.

California can and should do better. The state cannot tax, spend and regulate its way to prosperity. California must become a place that values entrepreneurship more than government programs and the free market more than central planning.

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Oct. 21

Ventura County Star on another year, another homeless-shelter scramble

A year ago, lamenting what had become annual uncertainty over how and where a winter warming shelter for the homeless would be operated in west Ventura County, we editorialized, "We are not optimistic that we will not be writing the same thing at this time next year."

Unfortunately, our pessimism proved prophetic. For the third year in a row, county and city leaders are scrambling at the last minute to figure out how to protect the homeless from winter's cold and rain.

The county Board of Supervisors is took up the matter Tuesday. With the shelter's usual Dec. 1 opening a little more than a month away, county staff members are asking the board for direction.

We could criticize our leaders for letting this crucial need get to this point yet again, but that would not be fair. This is a complex problem with no easy fixes, and we suppose the best we can hope for is yet another temporary solution this winter while officials continue next year to work on a permanent plan.

The winter shelters traditionally have been housed at National Guard armories in Oxnard and Ventura, but it's not an ideal setup. They've only operated from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly, meaning the homeless have to go somewhere else during the day. It's expensive, transportation to and from the shelters can be a problem, and social service providers don't get much chance to truly help the homeless.

The good news this year, according to a county staff report to supervisors, is the Ventura armory would be available from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. And Ventura and Oxnard have each agreed to chip in $100,000 for the shelter. Ventura last year gave $60,000 and Oxnard $84,000.

The bad news is those extra two hours a day mean higher costs. And no church, nonprofit or other group has been secured yet to run the shelter.

In a perfect world, Ventura County would have multiple permanent, year-round, 24-hour-a-day, full-service homeless shelters — or at least one. County officials thought they might have space for one at the juvenile justice complex in El Rio, but that didn't work out legally or cost-wise.

Ventura is moving forward on allowing a permanent shelter in an industrial area of the city, agreeing in April to zoning changes that permit an overnight facility to also offer social services during the day, but it's a slow slog. Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a bill levying a fee on real estate transactions, and 50 percent of that revenue next year will go to help the homeless. But that's next year.

You can argue about whether shelters are the right approach to the homeless problem. What you can't argue about are the numbers — more than 700 people spent a combined 10,699 nights at last winter's shelter in Oxnard. We hope our local leaders can again find a way to give them a helping hand.