Medical Assistance Program emergency...Badlands Journal editorial board
Merced's Medical Assistance Program, which provides medical care to among the county's poorest residents, needs $500,000 or it will have to cut 400 patients off its eligibility list. The issue was heard at the July 21, 2009 Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting and board consideration of this issue will continue at the August 18, 2009 meeting.
Badlands Journal editorial board has several suggestions for the supervisors that would avoid cutting 400 patients off the MAP program, sending them to the far more expensive emergency room.
1. If all five supervisors contributed their annual discretionary (pork) funds, of $100,000 per supervisor, to MAP, the problem would be solved. MAP is more important that restoring the historical Snelling Courthouse (the county has a brand-new courthouse), bailing out the East Merced Resource Conservation District to the tune of $35,000 for mis-, mal- and nonfeasance in the management of public grants, or the hapless attempts of former Supervisor Kathleen Crookham to put nearly $300,000 of her saved pork fund into restoring an old movie theatre owned by the City of Merced, to build monuments, a scoreboard for Dos Palos Youth Baseball, a new flagpole with landscape for Merced High School, the endless subsidizing of the county fair, Atwater Library fix ups, $40,000 for the High-Speed Rail "Citizens Committee," etc.
2. The Hun, our governor, axed the state subvention for the Williamson Act last week, leaving the counties to pick up the difference between the taxes that would be collected from farms and ranches if the land were assessed at its real estate value rather than the much lower rate based on farming and open space uses under the Williamson Act. Merced County supervisors voted in 2000 to put most of the unincorporated land in the county into the Agricultural Preserve, making landowners eligible for Williamson Act contracts. The amount of the state subvention to Merced County is $1.2 million. If the supervisors cannot bring it upon themselves to cut their pork funds, they could suspend the Williamson Act, tax agricultural parcels at their higher amount and raise at least $500,000 for the medically indigent.
Or, if the County continues the subsidy, farmers, out of the goodness of their hearts, could donate back the money to keep MAP open.
Alternatively, farmer Jean Okuye, whose photo appeared in this week's front-page Merced Sun-Star article about the anguish and anger Merced farmers were feeling at the lost of the state Williamson Act subvention, could donate the state funds she received for an agricultural easement, about $450,000, on her orchard in 2007. Another alternative might be to pass the hat around the larger farming community in Merced County for donations from other agricultural subsidies. According to the Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Data Base for Merced County, farmers here received from the federal government more than $266 million from 1995 through 2006 in cotton, dairy, corn and rice subsidies and disaster payments.
3. Another approach could be to modify the pensions of former Merced County CEO Greg Wellman and present county CEO, Dee Tatum. Wellman is profitably employed with the City of Atwater, working earnestly to change the racist culture in City Hall. CEO Tatum already used his office to secure a cut-rate deal from a developer on a parcel of prime farmland near Planada, which should provide him a comfortable retirement, augmented by his wife’s salary and retirement, also from the County. A measy half-million could easily be found from this source.
The Donation III: Merced Theatre contribution denied yet again...SCOTT JASON
MERCEDCOUNTYBOARD OF SUPERVISORS AGENDA, JULY 21, 2009
HEALTH - PUBLIC HEARING
Open the Beilenson Public Hearing pursuant to Section 1442.5 of the California Health and Safety Code (Beilenson Act) to consider proposed health care service reduction/elimination as follows:
The following services will no longer be covered by the Medical Assistance Program (MAP), which would affect 780 clients annually and save the program approximately $103,000 annually. Individual services and impacts:
a. Optometry - Affect approximately 290 clients annually, will save approximately $24,000 annually.
b. Podiatry - Affect approximately 15 clients annually, will save approximately $4,000 annually.
c. Dental - Affect approximately 475 clients annually, will save approximately $75,000 annually.
d. Audiology and Speech Therapy - No MAP claims filed and no clients affected and $0 annually saved.
The Medical Assistance Program: change the income requirement from at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to at or below 100% of the FPL; affect approximately 400 clients annually, will save approximately $300,000 annually.
RECOMMENDATION: To meet the current revenue shortfall of $500,000 and anticipated future reductions in Realignment Revenue, the Department recommends the following actions:
1. Approve the recommended Service cuts for a savings of approximately $103,000 annually.
2. Limit MAP Eligibility to 100% or less of the FPL for a savings of approximately $300,000 annually.
3. Make no changes to the co-pay policy.
4. Approve recommended cuts to retro-active ER Coverage for a savings of $50,000 annually.
State cuts Williamson Act funding; Merced County will lose the property tax revenue...CORINNE REILLY...7-30-09
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to cut millions in state funding for farmland preservation will take a heavy toll in Merced County.
The Williamson Act program, which provides property tax breaks for farmers who promise to keep their land in agricultural production for at least a decade, was among the cuts the governor made before he signed California's new budget Tuesday.
Traditionally the state has reimbursed counties for the lost tax revenue. The cuts mean that local governments are now on their own to eat what's lost; because the program involves legal contracts with landowners guaranteeing the tax breaks, the county doesn't have the option to renege.
That means Merced County will add another $1.2 million to its already massive budget shortfall, county spokeswoman Katie Albertson said.
"For us, it simply means the state won't be providing that money anymore," she said. "The Board of Supervisors will have to decide how to cover that."
For local farmers and conservationists, the elimination of the program is a significant blow. Nearly half of the county's agricultural land -- roughly 474,000 acres -- is under contract for preservation through the Williamson Act.
The program is widely credited with helping growers stay in business and resist the option of selling to developers.
"We thought that the governor supported the people who grow our food supply, but it appears that's not the case," said Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. "We're floored. The state is going down a very dangerous path here."
The Board of Supervisors will have to decide soon whether Merced County should continue entering into new Williamson contracts. In light of the funding cuts, it's probable the county will stop.
Cindy Lashbrook, a Livingston farmer and a Merced County planning commissioner, said that would have far-reaching effects in the county.
"If we're going to have to deal with this, I guess it's good that it's coming at a time when we're experiencing this reprieve from development pressures," Lashbrook said. "All we can do is hope that (the funding cut) is temporary."
Besides preserving farmland, the Williamson program probably has helped to keep food prices down, said Benina Bylsma, whose family grows almonds in northern Merced County on land that's now under a Williamson Act contract.
"It really makes a difference for us," Bylsma said. "Those are savings that ultimately get passed on."
Across California, roughly 17 million acres of farmland are under Williamson Act contracts, according to the state Department of Conservation. California spent roughly $38 million on Williamson Act reimbursements last year.
The program is named for its Assembly sponsor, John Williamson of Bakersfield.
Steve Cameron: RMP -- I told you so. Steve Cameron is former Sun-Star sports editor and currently a journalist/author who is also a contributor editor with Stadia magazine.
I'm certainly not the sort of person who smirks and says: "I told you so!"
I told you so!
Yes, the Riverside Motorsports Park fiasco finally has been buried. About time, too, since the thing never had the faintest heartbeat.
John Condren's parting statement that his $250 million vision of an auto racing Disneyland was undone by the current recession is, well ...
It's funny enough for Chris Rock to make it a stand-up routine.
The truth is that Condren's plan was dead and beginning to smell when I arrived as sports editor of the Sun-Star in June 2006.
At that time, Condren was busy distributing fancy conceptual drawings of his fantasy park -- but he also had conned the public and Merced County public officials into believing his dreamland might someday be built.
It's also worth noting that by that same summer, Condren already had snatched all available money from his original investors and kicked them under a passing Greyhound.
So spare me the tales of economic tough times, John.
That's nonsense and you know it -- just as you always knew RMP was never more than an invisible business from which you could suck a handsome salary and some ungodly amount of bogus "expense money."
During my tenure at the Sun-Star, I wrote numerous commentaries -- all pointing to the cold, hard truth that Condren's puffed-up plan was impossible.
I've spent well over a decade reporting on the business side of sports and entertainment facilities -- how they're funded, how they operate and how you determine their value.
In fact, I'm still a regular contributor to Stadia magazine, an international publication that examines all phases of the sports venue industry.
You might want to pick an argument with me over, oh, I don't know -- something like whether Merced High should have kicked the PAT and played overtime in that section title game against Vacaville instead of going for the two points.
We can have some fun.
But please don't come to me with talking points about how Riverside Motorsports Park could have succeeded, how it might have given the county a huge shot in the arm, or how we almost became the auto racing center of the nation.
This is my game, and I can tell you without a shred of doubt that when I first saw the cost figures for RMP -- sitting alongside the business model and projected revenue -- I knew instantly that the whole thing was a con game and that Condren was simply picking everyone's pockets for as long as the scam would hold up.
Before the whole RMP mess blew up, Condren was talking about getting money from private investors -- hah! -- and borrowing the remaining $170 million or so from some friendly bankers.
Something I wrote back then is worth repeating -- that the San Francisco Giants struggled finding $175 million to build what is now AT&T Park, despite the fact that the team was putting up another $175 million of its own and had massive guaranteed revenues at its disposal to service any loan.
In fact, then-CEO Peter Magowan was stunned to discover that he couldn't find financing in San Francisco and had to beg for that final $175 million through an institution in New York.
Now here's somebody like John Condren -- a guy who'd been through bankruptcy and several failed businesses -- who shows up in town and asks us to believe he can find a quarter-billion bucks in construction money for a gear-shift heaven in a barely accessible almond orchard.
It was absurd on the face of it, and I told Condren that in our one and only phone conversation. I implied some other things during that exchange, as well, but the Sun-Star's lawyers probably don't want to see them printed here.
Suffice to say, though, that as we look back ...
Well, my opinion of Condren, his plans and his motives seem justified.
But look, the important thing today -- and the reason I've written this piece -- is to beg the citizens of Merced County and their elected representatives not to spend too much time simply banging their fists about the past.
Please, please look forward.
Specifically, learn from the grotesque mistake of being duped by John Condren and make doggone sure nothing like RMP ever happens again.
Sure, I understand that the county wants to take advantage of new business opportunities. That's a correct attitude, but it doesn't mean you bow and scrape for every snake-oil salesman who drives over the mountain from Morgan Hill.
Voters, make it clear to your supervisors that you want serious oversight -- or that you'll chuck them out of office.
This is no joke.
Simply because county officials hugged and kissed Condren without even a simple, surface background check, you taxpayers are on the hook for several hundred thousand dollars.
You've been had. Suckered. Swindled. And ordinary citizens now must pay for this incredible error.
Back in the days when county officials were championing RMP, and many local businesses gave Condren credit that they now regret, it seemed impossible to make folks listen.
Board chairman Mike Nelson boasted that RMP would be his "legacy" in that position.
Still want that tattooed on your forearm, Mike?
Supervisor Kathleen Crookham justified the lack of fact-checking on Condren's background by claiming that any investigation of applicants -- for, oh, changing land uses -- would be "unfair."
Unfair to whom, exactly?
In retrospect, all of it was political malpractice. And so now county taxpayers must write the checks to clean up Condren's toxic dump site.
At least there should be a lesson learned from the Condren affair.
Counties and cities can't ever be so willing to entice new business that they neglect their basic obligation of protecting the people they serve.
Just a routine investigation -- a little due diligence -- would have saved everyone from RMP and the fiscal poison it spread.
Memo to Merced County: Tack up pictures of John Condren in all public buildings.
Might make you a bit ill, but at least it could stop you from doing something so stupid again.
And that might make the whole experience worthwhile.
Report: California must adapt to changing climate...SAMANTHA YOUNG, Associated Press Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Even if the world is successful in cutting carbon emissions in the future, California needs to start preparing for rising sea levels, hotter weather and other effects of climate change, a new state report recommends.
It encourages local communities to rethink future development in low-lying coastal areas, reinforce levees that protect flood-prone areas and conserve already strapped water supplies.
"We still have to adapt, no matter what we do, because of the nature of the greenhouse gases," said Tony Brunello, deputy secretary for climate change and energy at the California Natural Resources Agency, who helped prepare the report. "Those gases are still going to be in the atmosphere for the next 100 years."
The 159-page draft report to be released Monday by the California Natural Resources Agency provides the state's first comprehensive plan to work with local governments, universities and residents to deal with a changing climate. A final plan is expected to be released in the fall after the public weighs in.
The report was compiled after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed agencies in November to devise a state climate strategy. It comes three years after the Republican governor signed California's landmark global warming law requiring the state to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Most countries have focused on cutting greenhouse gases in the future, but researchers say those efforts will take decades to have an effect while the planet continues to warm. States have only recently begun to look at what steps they must take to minimize the damage expected from sea level rise, storm surges, droughts and water shortages because of the climate changes.
Stephen Schneider, a professor of environmental studies at Stanford University, said California has recognized it must work "both sides of the coin," by cutting emissions and advising residents on how to adapt to climate change.
"It's unbalanced to only focus on the longer-term reductions," Schneider said. "You also have to think about the systems that are going to be hurt from the climate change that we can't avoid."
Over the last century in California, the sea level has risen by 7 inches, average temperatures have increased, spring snowmelt occurs earlier in the year, and there are hotter days and fewer cold nights.
The report warns that rising temperatures over the next few decades will lead to more heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods.
"We have to deal with those unavoidable impacts," said Suzanne Moser, a research associate at the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz. "We can't pretend they are not going to happen, and we have to prepare for that."
To minimize the potential damage from climate change, the report recommends that cities and counties offer incentives to encourage property owners in high-risk areas to relocate and limit future development in places that might be affected by flooding, coastal erosion and sea level rise.
State agencies also should not plan, permit, develop or build any structure that might require protection in the future.
"Californians will need to make tough decisions about which critical assets we want to protect, which ones can be relocated, which ones will have to be removed, and what is economically reasonable," the report states.
The report suggests the state partner with local governments and private landowners to create large reserves that protect wildlife threatened by warmer weather. Similarly, wetlands and fish corridors should be established to protect salmon and other fragile fish.
Farmers should be encouraged to be more efficient when watering their crops and investments should be made to improve crop resistance to hotter temperatures.
At the state's universities, where climate research is already under way, scientists should coordinate with the state to identify research gaps and provide policymakers with the most up-to-date information on how climate changes might affect the state, the report states.
Michael Hanemann, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, said government and universities have a role to play by informing the public about climate change, but cities and counties will have to do the hard work.
For example, cities are in charge of many of land-use decisions that determine future development. California's finite water supplies are delivered by hundreds of local water agencies scattered throughout the state. Hanemann likens the climate challenge to that of government's efforts to fight obesity.
"The Department of Health can put out guidelines, but you and I control our eating patterns," he said.
AP analysis: Foreclosures stabilize in key states...MIKE SCHNEIDER and CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, Associated Press Writers
Even as Americans suffer rising unemployment, foreclosure rates in three states hit hardest by the housing bust - California, Arizona and Florida - stabilized in June, offering hope that the worst of the real estate crisis is over, according to The Associated Press' monthly analysis of economic stress in more than 3,100 U.S. counties.
The latest results of AP's Economic Stress Index show foreclosure and bankruptcy rates held steady from May in some states. Yet mounting unemployment is hampering an economic recovery in some regions, especially the Southeast and industrial Midwest.
The AP calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on each county's unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. The higher the score, the higher the economic stress. The average county's Stress score rose to 10.6 in June, up from 10 in May, mainly because of rising unemployment.
In June 2008, the average county's Stress score was 6.7. The pain was lower then because the economy was still expanding. In fact, the second quarter of 2008 was the last time the economy grew.
Under a rough rule of thumb, a county is considered stressed when its score zooms past 11. In June, 41 percent of the counties scored 11 or higher, up from 36 percent in May and 34 percent in April. The latest reading was slightly worse than for February and March, when nearly 40 percent of counties met or exceeded that threshold.
The national economy, meanwhile, shrank at a pace of just 1 percent in the second quarter of the year, according to figures released Friday. It was a better-than-expected showing that provided the strongest signal yet that the recession is finally winding down.
In June, foreclosure rates held steady for Arizona, California and Florida at 4.1 percent, 3.5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.
"It's obviously good news to stop the losses," said Jim Diffley, a regional economist at consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
He cautioned, though, that even as foreclosures level out in some states, they're doing so "at very high levels."
Other figures from the past two weeks suggest that the housing market is recovering in many areas.
Nationally, seasonally adjusted home resales in June were up 9 percent from January. New-home sales surged 17 percent in the same period. Construction is up nearly 20 percent since the year began. And prices rose in May for the first time since June 2006.
The housing bust struck first in states such as California, Arizona and Florida, which had seen outsized price increases during the real estate boom.
Now, California's real estate market, for one, is improving by most measures. Sales increased 20.1 percent in June, and prices rose for the third straight month, according to the California Realtors' Association.
"It looks like we're past the peak in foreclosures," said Steve Goddard, president-elect of the realtors' association. "Most bank-owned properties are receiving multiple offers."
Still, foreclosure rates are rising in other states, such as Nevada, Georgia and Utah. Nationwide, Diffley and many other economists say rising unemployment may push foreclosures higher into next year.
Meanwhile, the sharpest year-to-year rise in bankruptcy rates in June occurred in counties in California and Nevada that have been the epicenter of the housing bust, along with areas of Georgia and Tennessee that tend to have high bankruptcy rates.
Among states, Nevada, Michigan and California showed the most economic distress, with Stress scores of 20.41, 18.34 and 15.78, respectively.
In June, Nevada had the nation's highest foreclosure rate (7.3 percent) and the fifth-highest unemployment rate (12 percent). Its counties have absorbed some of the sharpest growth in bankruptcy filings this year.
Michigan had the nation's highest unemployment rate in June (15.2 percent) and the sixth-highest foreclosure rate (2 percent). California also had among the nation's highest unemployment rates (11.6 percent) and foreclosure rates (3.5 percent).
North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska showed the least economic distress in June with Stress scores of 5.23, 5.43 and 6.14, respectively.
The states with the biggest year-to-year change for the worse were Nevada, Oregon and Michigan.
For a third straight month, Imperial County, Calif., topped the list of stressed counties of more than 25,000 residents, with a Stress score of 31. Imperial is among the most impoverished U.S. counties.
It was followed by Merced County, Calif. (25.73), Yuma County, Ariz. (24.56), Yuba County, Calif. (23.76) and Lauderdale County, Tenn. (23.46).
"We've had a couple of factory closings which have impacted a lot of our workers - mainly automotive supply parts and printing," said Leslie Sigman, president of the Bank of Ripley, in western Tennessee's Lauderdale County.
Riley County, Kan., home to the Army's Fort Riley and Kansas State University, had the nation's lowest Stress score in June (4.04) in counties with more than 25,000 residents.
It was followed by Brown County, S.D. (4.07), Brookings County, S.D. (4.12), Ward County, N.D. (4.22) and Burleigh County, N.D. (4.27), home of the state's capital, Bismarck.
These counties are part of an economic "safe zone" stretching from the Plains to Texas that has been largely shielded from the recession because of high energy and crop prices.
Counties with the biggest year-to-year change for the worse were: Howard County, Ind., Williams County, Ohio, Union County, S.C., Chester County, S.C., and Noble County, Ind. At least a third of the jobs in those counties involve manufacturing.
Public pension shortage too dire to leave unresolved...Editorial
The state budget agreement reached last month did nothing to begin reforming the public pension system, which is underfunded by billions of dollars because of overly generous benefits promised over the past decade.
In late June, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed rolling back retirement benefits for new state hires to levels that existed before 1999, when the Legislature and former Gov. Davis began a round of increases that have significantly added to the cost of state and local pensions. But Democrats pushed back, and Schwarzenegger agreed to set the issue aside during budget talks.
But this issue is too important to leave unresolved. Schwarzenegger should resume his push for reform.
Fortunately, some local governments are going ahead. Orange County is moving toward a two-tiered pension plan. New employees would have the option of a less-generous plan -- a lower amount at a higher age -- but wouldn't have to contribute so much out of their current salaries. It is expected to appeal to employees who don't intend to remain with the county long or who want a larger take-home check.
Stanislaus County soon will invite proposals from actuarial firms to analyze what kinds of savings might be available if it went to a two-tiered plan. Any change would have to be negotiated with the unions, so nothing is likely to happen for more than a year.
Some retirees are interpreting this reform push as a personal attack. That's not the intent. Reform advocates are spotlighting those with extravagant pensions -- $100,000 or more -- as a way to get the public's attention and emphasize that the current system is unsustainable.
It would be illegal, and unconscionable, to reduce the promised amounts retirees receive now. The point is to rein in future costs. They are high for several reasons:
Public pension plans are all defined-benefit, meaning the pension amounts are guaranteed. If retirement investment funds run short -- as they are doing now -- then the government agencies have to make up the difference from current budgets. In contrast, most private-sector employees participate in defined-contribution plans, in which the employee and employer contribute to a retirement fund. There's no guarantee what the final payout will be. That's determined by how much money is contributed over time and how well the retirement investments perform.
Age. Public safety employees are allowed to retire at 50 and most other public employees at 55. (For educators, 60 is standard.) Many of the reform suggestions call for raising these ages to be more in line with those in the private sector.
Pay spiking. Many agencies base the pension amount on the last year's income, which might include not just salary but unused vacation, sick leave and other perks. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the case of a retired Bay Area fire chief who earned $186,000 in his last year on the job. But by cashing out unused vacation, sick leave and holiday pay, he was able to boost his annual earnings to $241,000, and that higher figure was used to calculate his pension benefits. A more sensible way would be to base retirement on the average of the last three years' income.
Government salaries and benefits should be competitive with those in the private sector. There was a day when government jobs paid less but offered better benefits, including retirement. Now, in many cases, government compensation is higher in all areas.
Getting pension costs back under control will, in the long term, free up more money for current employees and for the services that government is in business to provide.
Bankruptcy imperils Madera County casino...John Ellis
A nationally known gambling expert said last week's bankruptcy filing by Station Casinos could hamper efforts by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to build a Madera County casino.
The Las Vegas-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday. Station has a deal with the North Fork tribe to run a proposed $250 million casino, which would include about 2,500 slot machines, 70 table games, multiple restaurants and a hotel.
It is estimated the project would generate 2,500 temporary construction jobs and almost 1,500 full-time jobs after the casino and hotel open.
Another 2,300 Madera-area jobs could be created because of the economic spinoff of the mega-casino, and tribal leaders have said the project would generate $45 million to $50 million in annual vendor purchases.
But Station's bankruptcy is another setback for the long-planned casino, which also faces multiple governmental hurdles at the state and federal levels before ground can be broken.
A Station Casinos' spokeswoman said the deal is intact and the company is committed to the Madera project. The Mono tribe also said the bankruptcy will not pose a problem.
The company, however, will need permission from the bankruptcy judge to "do anything -- which puts a clamp on Station," said Bill Eadington, an economics professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Money also will have to be allocated to sustain the Madera project, he added.
"While in bankruptcy, it is very difficult to allocate funds for speculative ventures -- and this would probably fall under that," Eadington said.
The current credit crunch and lingering recession add to the challenge, not only for Station, but other high-profile gaming companies, as well.
One option for the company is to sell the Madera contract, if it could find a willing buyer in this economy, Eadington said. The casino, proposed to be built on a little more than 300 acres about four miles north of Madera, is in a prime location, which could possibly fetch $20 million to $40 million, he said.
Lori Nelson, a Station spokeswoman, declined to comment on the plan.
But Eadington said a gaming company that has experience working with Indian casinos would likely find the Madera project attractive based on the cash flow it could generate once it is up and running.
Thunder Valley Casino, located northeast of Sacramento and owned by the United Auburn Indian Community, raked in $75 million in profits during its first year of operation in 2004 and 2005.
"That's as attractive as you can get," Eadington said.
Station, conversely, could probably use the cash from a sale, he said.
Nelson said the bankruptcy filing was at the parent company level and does not affect individual casino properties, including the Madera project.
"There's absolutely no impact with our relationship with the tribe," she said.
In a written statement, Tribal Chairwoman Elaine Bethel-Fink also said the project would not be affected and that Station remained "committed to the project."
Still, the proposal -- which would be California's first off-reservation casino -- faces significant challenges beyond Station's bankruptcy filing. Foremost among those is the nation's faltering economy.
In addition, the proposed casino site has to be put into federal trust, and a gambling compact reached between the tribe and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must be approved by state lawmakers.
"There's still a lot of problematic hurdles for this particular tribe to meet," said state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a longtime opponent of the proposal.
Florez sits on the state Senate committee that must ratify the compact, and he is concerned that it would be located more than 30 miles from the tribe's historic lands.
Madera County Supervisor Vern Moss -- who has been opposed to the casino, though his fellow supervisors support it -- said the biggest issue is the lengthy amount of time that has passed with no decision from the federal government on the matter.
Added to the Station bankruptcy, he said, it does not bode well for the casino proposal.
Rare garter snake reappears in S.J.
First sighting in 15 years...Alex Breitler
STOCKTON - The timid and foul-smelling giant garter snake has been spotted in San Joaquin County for the first time in 15 years.
While ordinary folks shiver, biologists shout for joy.
It's been many years since an in-depth search has been conducted in this area, and the presence of the giant garter snake indicates that the federally threatened species is hanging on despite having lost 90 percent of its wetland habitat.
"It is really very exciting news," said independent biologist Eric C. Hansen of Sacramento, who discovered the first of eight giant garter snakes in a wetland northwest of Stockton about three weeks ago.
Though "giant" by name, the giant garter snake is hardly a man-eating python of the Delta. It's a harmless serpent, maybe 5 feet long, that spends most of its time sunning itself and eating small fish and frogs, Hansen said.
The discovery occurred after Hansen snagged a federal grant to determine how many of the 13 historic subpopulations of giant garter snakes still exist. He rigged floating traps to capture the snakes as they swim across streams.
In about a half-acre of tule wetlands, he's found six males and two females - including one that was pregnant and has since given birth. (In case you were wondering, a giant garter snake can have anywhere from 10 to 46 babies per brood, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
"This shows they are reproducing," Hansen said. "It's a population cluster."
Fish and Wildlife officials agreed to discuss Hansen's find on the condition that the exact location of the snakes be kept secret. Poachers are known to kill the snakes or sell them as pets for their unusual color patterns.
"The more rare things become, the more valuable," Hansen said.
While some snakes deal with conflict by aggressively striking their enemy, the giant garter snake is a pacifist that will merely slither away. Because it lives in marshes and eats slimy things, it has a "fishy musk" it excretes to the displeasure of, at least, the human nose.
Populations exist as far south as Mendota and as far north as Chico, though there is a 60-mile gap south of Stockton.
The snakes once slithered along Duck Creek and the Stockton Diverting Canal; since their last sighting 20 years ago, however, those snakes are presumed to be gone, Hansen said.
The good news is that by monitoring 2,000 traps all over the Central Valley, he has been able to confirm that 11 of the 13 historic populations remain.
Biologists are putting microchips in the trapped snakes to keep track of them and better estimate their population.
"It takes a very determined interest in this animal to locate them," said Hansen, whose father, George, was also a leading giant garter snake expert.
Local officials were equally pleased. The snake is one species covered under San Joaquin County's Habitat Conservation Plan, which is intended to mitigate for land that is paved over and developed.
"This is pretty big for the biological community," said Steve Mayo, a habitat planner with the San Joaquin Council of Governments.
"Now we can at least point and say that, yes, there are garter snakes out there."
"Giant" ones at that.
Sage grouse supporters take on wind farms
Environmentalists say wind farms could disrupt the chicken-sized bird's habitat. But green energy advocates say wind power is key to fighting global warming...Reuters
CARBON (Reuters) -- They used to mine coal in the abandoned town of Carbon. Now this patch of southern Wyoming is a battleground in the debate over what many hope will be the clean energy source of the future: wind power.
At the heart of the dispute are plans to build a network of wind farms in the American West that conservationists fear could disrupt threatened habitat such as sage brush, a dwindling piece of the region's fragile ecosystem.
This has made the greater sage grouse -- which as its name suggests is totally dependent on sage brush -- an unlikely poster child for some U.S. environmentalists, in much the same way that the rare spotted owl became a symbol in the 1980s of pitched battles with the logging industry.
Wyoming is home to 54% of the greater sage grouse population in North America. The bird's status is being evaluated for inclusion on the U.S. government's threatened or endangered species list, which would give it more protection.
The problem: The chicken-sized bird lives in the vast tracts of wind-whipped open spaces that make Wyoming highly attractive to the wind industry.
Near Carbon, the focus is on a 198-turbine, $600 million wind farm proposed by Horizon Wind Energy.
"They want to build it around here but we need to be thinking truly green. It is not just about our carbon footprint," said Alison Holloran of the National Audubon Society in Wyoming, as she pointed to clumps of grayish sage brush along a dirt road.
Wind power will play a huge role in any move by the United States to reduce its emissions of the greenhouse gases that most scientists believe are the main causes of rapid climate change. The burning of coal and the use of other fossil fuels such as oil are the largest single source of carbon emissions, so the race is on for "clean energy" alternatives.
Shades of brown
In the public mind, wind is regarded as about as "green" an energy source as you can get. But some environmentalists see shades of brown in the industry.
They say the wind turbines and the development that goes with them, including roads and transmission lines, will further fragment critical sage habitat and disturb the grouse and other wildlife.
Horizon says the grouse issue requires more study.
"There is no peer-reviewed research on how sage grouse respond to turbines," said Arlo Corwin, Horizon's development director for the western region. "We believe that obtaining this research is essential to see if wind turbines and sage grouse are going to be able to coexist."
There have been several wind power skirmishes in the United States. Off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, there is a battle over plans for an offshore wind farm that opponents say will disrupt navigation and shipping. There have also been concerns about bird/turbine collisions in some places.
Wind now delivers about 1.25% of the United States' electricity supply, but the industry is growing fast, according to the American Wind Energy Association. It says wind power generation now offsets about 54 million tons of carbon a year.
In Wyoming, there are about 20 wind farms and four additional projects under construction, the association says. It ranks the state 12th in U.S. wind production but seventh in potential generation -- meaning a lot of untapped capacity.
Wind turbines already spin in Carbon County not far from Horizon's proposed development area, where the treeless countryside looks stark. The town of Carbon was abandoned over a century ago and only a few brick foundations remain.
In this harsh landscape, sage sustains life. The greater sage grouse and around 20 other bird species depend on it for survival, and the sturdy plant also sustains big game species such as elk and mule deer during the cold Wyoming winter.
Corwin said Horizon's planned wind development, known as the Simpson Ridge project, would make use of existing transmission lines that run through the area, removing at least one concern.
Horizon is evaluating when to apply for a permit to develop the site, which is also attractive because landowners have agreed to host the turbines on their property.
Last year, Wyoming said it would restrict development on greater sage grouse habitats it has designated "core population areas."
U.S. government wildlife officials say that other kinds of development have not been favorable for the grouse.
"The impact of fragmentation is very, very clear. We know that they won't occupy habitat close to an interstate for example. They are a landscape species and need big open intact habitats," said Brian Kelly, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming.
Kelly said such concerns applied to all developments, including gas, oil and even housing -- not just wind.
About 20% of the state is regarded as "core" for the bird.
"If we conserve that 20% we effectively conserve 40% of the birds in North America. That's why it is significant," Kelly said.
The state government estimates that only about 14% of Wyoming's "economically viable wind areas" -- which is based on factors like wind strength, speed and duration -- is within core sage and grouse grounds while 86% is outside.
"We don't need to pick one or the other, grouse or wind. We can have robust sage grouse populations and robust wind development in Wyoming -- no problem," said Aaron Clark, an energy advisor to the governor of Wyoming.
The wind industry has disputed these figures and some of the definitions used by wildlife and state officials.
Horizon's Corwin noted that sage, which has lost about half of its historic range by some estimates, is also under threat from climate change. And reducing greenhouse gas emissions by harnessing energy sources such as wind is seen as the best way to slow or stop global warming.