“Greedy and foolish men”

I’m glad somone wrote this column about the death of the Tunnel Tree — though, ironically, the writer is a developer.

The "drive-through sequioa" in 2015.

“The Pioneer Cabin Tree at Calaveras Big Trees State Park was a victim of our recent stormy weather, but its ultimate demise started nearly 150 years ago at the hands of greedy and foolish men,” Dick Hagerty writes in the Modesto Bee.

Hagerty also recounts other atrocities such as the creation of Big Stump for a dance floor.

I bristled when the Tunnel Tree collapsed. The difference between Hagerty and me is that I live on the Delta, where one is continuously witness to the workings of greedy and foolish men. I feel a sort of fatigue at the relentless and destructive efforts of our institutions and our fellows to gnaw the roots of the tree of life.

There’s a shortcoming in our species, a blindness born not merely of ignorance but of of belief, faith, ideology, that causes us to filter out some of which is basic and sane. Or, to put it another way. if a tree falls in the forest, and everybody hears it, does it still make a sound?

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Bullet train cost soars

About cost overruns on California’s high-speed rail system, I have half-seriously joked that the Valley deserves a boondoggle of its own. That does not mean that egregious cost overruns and delays should be dismissed.

The Los Angeles Times obtained a confidential internal report from the Federal Railroad Administration that says the first segment alone of California’s $70 billion high-speed rail system could cost $10 billion instead of $6.4 billion. That’s going $156% over budget.

And the project is seven years behind schedule.

“It’s a truly frustrating issue,” writes Reason, “because we see very little evidence that this train can pay for itself after its built and will require subsidies in order to keep operating (despite their insistence otherwise). So the actual consequence of creating all these jobs is that all these people are spending billions of tax dollars to build something that is going to continue to cost money after the construction is done.”

True. But we subsidize automobiles, too. And greenhouse gas emissions are killing the planet. That said, I’d like to see the California High-Speed Rail Authority respond to this latest hail of doubt with numbers showing that the financial and environmental benefits of the system still outweight the costs. In fact, I’ll request that response, and post it here when it arrives, presumably later today.

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Stockton’s relative income decline

This chart shows San Joaquin County’s per capita incomes (the dark black line) relative to the U.S. (the broken blue line going straight across), Sacramento and other counties.

Note we have improved in recent years. This seems less a permanent upward trend than a rebound from the depths of the Recession.

Here’s a Forbes article laying the blame for in come inequality on unintended consequences of Reagan-era attempts to rectify the problems stemming from the “fiat dollar” (the dollar backed not by gold but by government).

Here’s another Forbes article reporting on the recent hand-wringing at the Word Economic Forum at Davos over income inequality’s threat to Democracy. If these elites would spend less time jetting off to global forums and more time visiting places such as, in America, the San Joauqin Valley and the Rust Belt they could produce more effective policy.

If you want to bone up on the regional economy, here’s the 2016 North San Joaquin Valley Regional Index. Short version: economic growth in our region has been flat compared to growth elsewhere.

If you want to see the Bay Area included in a chart of this sort, check out Figure 9  of the 2014 North San Joaquin Regional Assessment.

“I wouldn’t be too pessimistic,” writes Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific. “Stockton has done much better in recent years than most people predicted 5 years ago.  It has already proven the worst doomsayers wrong, but there is still a long way to go.”


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Mother Nature spares Stockton

Water rises onto Weber Point.


… So far.

In the Bay Area, levees broke on Van Sickle and Grizzly islands.

In Lodi, the Mokelumne River burst its banks at a couple points.

In Sacramento County, the Mokelumne also spilled over, closing numerous county roads. A levee boil on the Cosumnes river prompted a voluntary evacuation order at Winton. The levee is holding.

But the largtest city on the Delta, Stockton, has been spared a disaster, though “you could practiacally hear 1,100 miles of Delta levees groaning,” as this story reports.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Especially with another “atmospheric river” due to arrive next week. But so far we’ve been remarkably lucky.

Of course, today is Friday the 13th. Hope I haven’t spoken prematurely.

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Chargers move; Spanos reviled

Picking up his marbles and leaving: San Diego Chargers team president and CEO Dean Spanos.

I’m uninterested in sports, but fascinated and dismayed by the way cities bend over to accommodate billionaires’ sports teams.

Except San Diego. Voters there were too smart to subsidize the Spanos family’s San Diego Chargers team. So Dean Spanos, son of Stockton’s Alex Spanos who bought the team, is packing up the team and moving to Los Angeles.

In San Diego, the Charger’s office was egged. 

“Wow, just what we need,” wrote an L.A. Times sports columnist, “the return of a professional sports team with no buzz, no tradition, few local fans north of south Orange County, limited success, and an owner who just stole them away from a place where they were loved unconditionally for 56 years. ”

The columnist, Bill Plaschke, bears down on Spanos.

• “According to a recent Forbes ranking, the Spanos family is worth $2.1 billion. They could have made it work there if they weren’t insistent on using public money that the people of San Diego smartly refused to give them.”

• “It gets worse. Spanos will have to pay as much as a $650-million relocation fee to bring his team here. Think he could have used that money toward a new stadium in San Diego?”

• “What a guy. What a joke.”

That point about the $650 million really makes you wonder if Spanos moved simply because he couldn’t get his way. After all, San Diegans feverently supported the Chargers by their attendance. They just thought reasonably that a multibillionaire family should finance its own business. Well, as Plaschke wrote, “Who cares?”



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Raising taxes to feed Hogzilla

Public employee pensions are a stealth attack on your wallet, writes Joel Fox in Fox and Hounds.

“Voters will never see a pension tax measure on the ballot. The effort to meet pension obligations will be subtler. Want more police services? Raise your taxes. Want to improve schools or parks? A tax increase is called for. A $10 car registration increase goes into effect in 2017 specifically to deal with California Highway Patrol pension obligations.

“In the November election, about 80 percent of the approximately 430 local tax and bond measures passed. Most of the tax measures were dedicated for specific purposes, but, in government, dollars are fungible. Covering a service cost with a new tax allows freed up money to be used for pensions.

“For the business community, the CalPERS board’s decision could result in broader efforts to seek more revenue from businesses in the form of business property tax increases or other taxes on business products and services.”

The upshot: Most of the tax increases you will see — whatever they supposedly fund — are really driven by the soaring cost of pensions.

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The benefits of high-speed rail


An artist's rendering of high speed rail.

Annie Parker, a spokesperson for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, writes:

“As a follow up as per the end of our conversation, I wanted to leave you with some quick facts about the benefits the program has demonstrated so far in the Fresno area.

“Currently, we are under construction on approximately 119 miles of the project with over $3 billion in commitments to the region. You can see the latest progress at our website here.

“All of this work has resulted in over 800 workers being dispatched to the area, with over 80 percent of those workers coming from the Central Valley area.

“We also wanted to let you know about a company from Lathrop that has been contributing to the project. In June 2016, 42 massive steel and concrete girders were moved from Lathrop to the Tuolumne Street Bridge site in Fresno. The beams were 149 feet long and each weighed more 166,200 pounds — approximately 83 tons.   These beams were essential to the construction of a new bridge that will carry two-way vehicle traffic into downtown Fresno and high-speed rail trains will travel underneath.

“Those beams were manufactured in Lathrop by Confab-California, which currently has a $15.1 million dollar contract and over 300 people that are working to produce the girders we need. Eventually, they will produce 700 girders for 22 high-speed rail bridges.”

High-Speed Rail ran into a buzzsaw when it chose a region of small-government farming traditionalists in which to start system construction. But I’m rooting for them to keep on layin’ track until high-speed rail reaches Stockton.

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Sacramento’s ‘economy of cool’

The city of Sacramento is chipping in $25,000 to fund art installations in a vacant warehouse on lower Broadway, a project called “Art Street.”

It’s a sequel to the “Art Hotel,” a project last yer in which artists filled a soon-to-be demolished apartment building with art. That installation drew hordes.

The city is contributing because its new Mayor, Darrell Steinberg, and other city officials believe subsidizing fringe arts has not only a social but an “economic value.”

Steinberg also proposes to cut permit and inspection processes for such happenings.

The Art Street warehouse “will become a maze of walkways with “shops” containing art installations from more than 100 artists,” the Sacramento Bee reports. The theme will include Baudelaire and a Marxist culture vulture named Walter Benjamin.

There’ll also be a couple bars and space for music and performance.

This week Steinberg’s going to ask the Council for $500,000 for “experiemental food, tachnology and arts projects. He said growing underground and street art could be an “intangible” boost to the local scene and support larger plans to increase the city’s attractiveness for business and tourism.”

Sacramento wants to be Oakland.

I have no idea whether such Richard Florida “creative class” orthodoxy returns the sort of payoff government officials want. But it does sound cool and insteresting.


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Manson returned to Corcoran

Not coming here ... yet. Charles Manson.

Charles Manson has been returned to Corcoran State Prison after a stay last week in a Bakersfield hospital for an officially undisclosed (but leaked) “serious medical condition.”

I wondered aloud if the notorious killer cult leader might be transferred to Stockton’s prison hospital.

He still might be if his condition worsens and becomes chronic.

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Another court advances pension reform

The second of two court cases challenging the city-killing “California Rule” (which says, in effect, pensions can’t be cut, even if they bankrupt every municipality in California) has gone in favor of pension reform.

Calpensions has it here.

“The law is quite clear that they are entitled only to a ‘reasonable’ pension, not one providing fixed or definite benefits immune from modification or elimination by the governing body,” wrote Justice Martin Jenkins.

The implications to Stockton are huge. If pensions can’t be cut, they’ll probably bankrupt Stockton again in a decade. If they can be cut, the city can reduce pension compensation going forward and stay solvent.

No public employee will (or should) lose what they have earned. But the right they assert to perpetually ballooning compensation despite any hurt it puts on the cities they purport to serve will be struck down.

If the state Supreme Court agrees. Stay tuned.

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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