Stockton’s most powerful man

The 5th most powerful person in California lives in Stockton.

He’s Joe Nunez, head of the California Teacher’s Association, the state’s most powerful union.

Nunez, a former Stockton teacher, was named the 5th most powerful in Capitol Weekly’s Top 100 ranking.

One observer told me a story about a meeting between Gov. Jerry Brown, the leaders of California’s two legislatures and Nunez. Nunez was able to tell the states top pols that the budget wouldn’t get out of the legislature.

California is a one-party state, and CTA dominance of Dems is unreal. Nunez controls $40 to $50 million in PAC money a year, doling it out to legislators and running the whole CTA operation statewide.



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One more star for the walk of fame

A Stockton luminary I forgot to include in today’s column is Harriet Chalmers Adams.

A female trailblazer, she was an intrepid explorer who circled the globe, sharing her discoveries with National Geographic.

A scholarly piece on her here.

Her Wikipedia entry here.

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Besto gets his appointment

I never held with those who cried foul over the $5,150 in campaign contributions Steve Bestolarides made to his fellow Supervisor Chuck Winn, who voted to appoint Bestolarides county Assessor Tuesday.

The contributions were transparent. So voters who think Winn sold his vote are free to vote against Winn come next election.

"My plan unfolded perfectly."

What bugged me was twofold. Procedurally, the cozy pattern of Assessors retiring before their term ends, making way for a political appointment, has to stop. It disenfranchises voters.

Politically, I think Stockton suffered a loss. Bestolarides can be calculating and crafty, but he has the intellectual ability to work out complex policy solutions. An example is reforming the county hospital. As Stockton’s mayor, there would be questions about Besto’s political indebtedness — almost all his campaign war chest came from developers — but he would have been good for the job, light years ahead of the cipher that occupies that office now.

Back to the hospital. Supervisor Carlos Villapudua served with Besto on the hospital oversight committee, seeking solutions to the hospital’s red ink. Besto did deep research. He contributed a lot to preserving the hospital. Villapudua didn’t do his homework. He was replaced.

And Villapudua is the one running for mayor of Stockton.

A race between an undistinguished Supervisor and the train wreck incumbent is too depressing to contemplate. My hope is, now that Besto is out, is that Elbert Holman or some other qualified, ethical candidate waiting in the wings will join the race. Stockton deserves better.

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The grueling battle for pension reform

A bellwether case of pension reform is heading towards a negotiated settlement.

In June of 2012 San Jose voters overwhelmingly approved Measure B, a pension reform measure.

San Jose had to do something. The cost of pensions rose from $73 million in 2001 to $245 million in 2011. Over the last two decades, the cost grew sevenfold. The pension account has been running in the red for a decade. Now it’s about $2 billion short.

That’s billion with a B.

Measure B increased employees’ contributions, established a voluntary reduced pension plan for current employees, cut pensions and benefits for new employees, reformed disability retirements to prevent abuses, temporarily suspended retiree raises during emergencies, and require voter approval for increases in future pension benefits.

Despite the public mandate, city unions fought the measure every step of the way. And key provisions were overturned in court. A judge nixed provisions in Measure B that cut pension benefits, ruling that provision violated current employees’ vested rights.

Now after “shelling out millions to defend Measure B,” San Jose’s council voted 10-1 to approve a settlement to end the labor litigation and invalidate the measure, the San Jose Merc reports.

If the courts okay the deal,

• The city’s new hires get a reduced pension. Retiree bonuses go away.

• Unions keep disability benefits. Current employees do not pay more into their pensions.

• Police get 8 percent “ongoing raises” and 5 percent bonuses. Talks with nine other employee unions follow.

San Jose’s case is closely watched because successful reform there would inspire reform in other municipalities.  It was a costly, drawn-out battle. But the city did achieve significant reform.

What has not been reported is whether the reforms allowed to stand will put the city back in the black. Or whether the union successes left the city on a slow conveyor to insolvency.

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Before the train comes the pain

California’s high-speed rail system may be 8-10 years from reaching Stockton. If it ever does.

A south-Valley woman won a ribbon for her Photoshopped photo showing how close the bullet train would pass her house.

But the railroad has reached Fresno in a big way. The High-Speed Rail Authority has purchased scores of properties right through the heart of Fresno — or seized them by eminent domain. That amounts to a whole bunch of drama, and a tear in the city’s historic fabric. A trade-off for a visionary transportation system.

This story is a eulogy for a swath of buildings traversing the city of Fresno.

Our turn will come.

Here’s a forward-looking piece I did a couple years ago on the route HSR may cut through Stockton.

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Stockton billboard’s last day

Since 2012 this billboard has greeted people entering Stockton from I-5 north at Lathrop:

“Our original thought process revolved around a welcome sign as Stockton does not have any official welcome signage,” said Wes Rhea of Visit Stockton.

Today, the contract for the billboard lapses. “So it will soon be gone I am sure,” Rhea said. “We have actually decided to let it lapse and see what we do post rebranding.”

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Another brother in bankruptcy

Hillview, Ky., population 8,000 has filed for bankruptcy, only the second city since Stockton (and Detroit) to do so.

The straw that broke the little city ‘s back was losing a multi million dollar lawsuit. But, like Stockton the city was badly overextended. It lists $10 million in assets and $100 million in liabilities.

There was a time when some experts predicted a wave of municipal bankruptcies. It didn’t happen. The Bloomberg story quotes a lawyer opining that Detroit’s torturous bankruptcy deterred other cities from filing for Chapter 9.

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Further “assessing” the mayor/Assessor races

Former Assessor Robert Shellenberger writes:

“Your comments are right on. The mayor situation couldn’t be better described. My vision, however, is myopic: The Assessor.

“I am hugely disappointed that the Record hasn’t been more emphatic on this shenanigan. You have made it clear for me to see the other part of this circus. But one of the most important offices in county government is at stake, and sadly, there is no longer any “corporate memory” in either the county or the Record about the horrific situation in 1970 when this office was tabbed the worst in the State and in danger of being taken over by the State. The Board of Equalization has limited powers to do this, but it was about to happen. It is our good luck we now have one of the best operations in the state. Kudos for us.

“This position is a career. It requires someone who has spent years accumulating the necessary experience and education to pull it off. We were told that one of our primary duties was to train and prepare our replacement. It is no job for an amateur. Fingers crossed the Board will do the right thing on Tuesday.”

My admittedly limited understanding of Supervisors’ thinking is that the Assessor’s office has not performed up to expectations. And that the #2 assessor would be more of the same. That is why some Supervisors support Bestolarides: not for his Assessor qualifications but for a leader’s ability to shake up a department.

But Shellenberger, more than anyone, knows what it takes. If he supports the #2, Supervisors should too. If she blows her chance, they are always free to replace her.

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New study casts doubt on pension reform

There are no articles of faith in my position on pension reform. There are only bitter experience and fact.

The bitter experience remains of a city that overspent on public employee compensation and went bankrupt. The way public employees astutely fought to retain special privilege during that crisis, and the way CalPERS bullied the city to preserve an unsustainable status quo, convinced me reform was necessary.

But how that should be done is debatable. Up to now, the consensus was that the pension levels in defined benefit plans should be reduced going forward, or switched to 401(k)-type plans called 457(b)s. Now a new study says switching to 457(b)s doesn’t work.

“The study found that in most cases the unfunded liabilities in the old plans rose sharply, the employees in the new plans failed to build sufficient nest eggs for comfortable retirement and the cost of pensions went up,” reports economic columnist Michael Hiltzik in the L.A. Times.

“The main problem with closing defined benefit plans is that the demographics within the closed plans change quickly. Without new members coming in, the number of active workers making contributions shrinks. The loss of young members making contributions for years before retirement is especially damaging.

“California’s giant pension fund, CalPERS, made this point in a 2011 white paper; its findings are confirmed by the experiences of the three states.”

I haven’t read this study (it’ll be first on this week’s reading list), so I don’t understand why new members avoid the new plans. What alternative are they choosing? But I understand this study challenges bedrock assumptions.

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Why city golf courses lose money

Competition, mostly. Poor maintenance. And design of the city’s two courses was bungled, too.

That emerged during Stockton’s bankruptcy trial. The manager of Stockton’s courses, Tom Nelson (quoted in today’s column), gave a direct testimony declaration full of details explaining what’s wrong with the courses physically and economically.

A fairway at Van Buskirk golf course.


• ”Shortly after Kemper took over management of the Courses, there were several important changes to the golf industry in the Stockton area. Elkhorn Golf Club in north Stockton, which had previously declared bankruptcy and ceased operations, was purchased by former members and Sierra Golf Management and re-opened as a public, heavily-discounted facility.

“Similarly, Micke Grove Golf Links in Lodi changed management to Fore Golf Partners, a very aggressive discount firm. Lockeford Springs Golf Course in Lodi also began heavily discounting its fees due to local market pressure. During this period, The Reserve at Spanos in Stockton began discounting its fees for the first time due to market changes.

“Due to these changes, the ability to charge full-price, or “rack,” rate has virtually been eliminated, requiring constant discounts and deals in order to attract play and reasonably compete with the Stockton area golf market.”

See the city’s golf budget here:  2015-16_Adopted_Budget_GOLF

Physically (to cite several examples):

• “The Courses currently have no cart paths. This is extremely unusual for golf course, because carts cannot be used for several days after rain. The result is a loss of cart fees, which make up 20-21% of daily fees. It would cost approximately $1 million to add a cart path to each of the Courses.”

• ”The Courses need new irrigation systems. This will require dredging the lake because the silt would otherwise ruin the system’s pipes. Irrigation and dredging for the Courses could cost upwards of several million dollars.”

• “Both the greens and bunkers at the Courses are of original design and construction. These old, “push up” style greens lack proper drainage and soil composition for optimal turf health. The bunkers’ drainage systems have completely collapsed, preventing proper drainage and sand texture for playability. Restoring the greens and bunkers at the Courses could cost several million dollars.”

Nelson’s assessment: “At a rough estimate, approximately $6 million to $8 million in capital improvements and deferred maintenance would be required to make the Courses profitable again.”

Read Nelson’s testimony here.

It is dismaying that city leaders never invested the funds necessary to make the courses profitable. But the people in City Hall were blase about money-losing endeavors. That was the culture: you could always tax more, juggle the books more, borrow more.

That mentality led to the bankruptcy and the city’s current fiscal straight jacket which prevents investment in the golf courses even if city leaders wanted to make it. City golf courses will remain money holes for years to come. About all Stockton can say is that the courses are popular amenities, and the money holes are much smaller than they used to be.


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    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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