10-27-08Merced Sun-StarDan Walters: State's roads need some TLChttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/177/v-print/story/517464.htmlWhy do we Californians put up with lousy highways not only the nation's most congested, but with perhaps its worst bone-jarring, suspension-damaging pavement conditions?Three recent personal road trips covering nearly 5,000 miles of interstate freeways, state highways, county roads and city streets in 17 states proved again to this driver that our roads are a disgrace.I encountered more bad pavement in one 80-mile drive down Interstate 80 to the Bay Area last week than in all of those out-of-state miles combined.Why should motorists in Georgia, West Virginia or Minnesota, to name three of the states, enjoy blemish-free pavement, even on secondary and tertiary roads, while we slam into sloppily repaired potholes or dodge those not yet indifferently filled?The data of highway maintenance are revealing. Our highways carry enormous numbers of cars and trucks, each of the latter with the wear-and-tear effect of 18,000 autos.This traffic beats up pavement and underlying roadbed. We should spend what's needed on maintenance and rehabilitation to offset the damage, but we don't.California's gas tax, at 18 cents a gallon, is tied for dead-last (with Alabama) among the 17 states covered by those three road trips.The others range as high as 32.2 cents in West Virginia and 32.9 cents in Wisconsin.California's gas tax hasn't been increased in more than a decade.Revenues are flat because as cars and trucks become more efficient, they use less fuel to travel a given distance. Moreover, those flat revenues are eroded even further by inflation.The California Transportation Commission puts it this way: "The state's gas tax can now only cover between 50 and 60 percent of the annual rehabilitation need ... rapidly increasing the number of distressed lane miles on the system. In 2001-02, the amount of distressed lanes miles was approximately 10,400. The number in 2005-06 was more than 13,800. Caltrans estimates that every dollar of preventative maintenance saves six dollars in rehabilitation and 20 dollars in major reconstruction costs. This under-investment is unsafe and has led to California having the second worst road conditions in the nation."Or perhaps the worst. The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington-based organization, says eight of the 20 major urban areas with the worst pavement conditions are in California.The Los Angeles area, with 65 percent in poor condition, is No. 1, followed by the Bay Area with 62 percent. TRIP estimates that bad pavement costs the average Los Angeles motorist $778 per year in added auto maintenance much more than the $100 that a 10-cent gas tax increase would cost.Bottom line: California roads are awful, they're getting worse, and there's an unspoken political conspiracy to block improvement.Conservative politicians oppose any new taxes, and liberals implicitly believe that intolerable roads will propel drivers into buses, trolleys and trains.The rest of us suffer.Writer sees a little Irvine in UC Merced...Danielle Gaines...Reporters' Notebookhttp://notebook.mercedsunstar.com/writer_sees_a_little_irvine_in_uc_mercedIn my endless surfing of all things UC Merced related, I found this very interesting post by Matthew Traum, a UC Irvine graduate and current engineering professor at the University of North Texas. Traum has great links that show how the university construction at Merced mirrors the construction at Irvine. Both were built essentially in the middle of nowhere. “Forty years from now, that country lane will be a main metropolitan thoroughfare thanks to the university being born at the end of the road. I’m sure the founding Irvine faculty enjoyed a similar drive from Santa Ana to UCI along a rural lane that eventually became State Highway 55,” he wrote.The New UC Merced Campus Represents Great Opportunities...Matthew Traum, Design Newshttp://www.designnews.com/blog/I_Have_The_Power_/1876-The_New_UC_Merced_Campus_Represents_Great_Opportunities.phpEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit the first American research university of the 21st Century; the University of California – Merced.This visit was poignant for me. I have felt personally connected to this newest University of California campus since I was an undergraduate at UC Irvine in the late 1990’s and the Merced building site was announced. UC Merced represents an opportunity for the University of California, unarguably best public university system in the world, to build a campus from scratch. So, Merced’s development is as free, creative, and innovative as the founders wish while backed by the prestige, reputation, and experience of the UC system. What and opportunity! And the founders are using it well. Even though my alma mater was a 5-hour, 313-mile southbound drive away, Merced felt like a UC campus. Although I had never been there before, UC Merced had a hallmark of familiarity for me, like visiting a childhood home in one’s adult years. Starting new academic programs from scratch is a prospect dear to me as a founding faculty member of the mechanical and energy engineering department at the University of North Texas (UNT). The difference, of course, is that UNT has existed since 1890; so, we are merely adding a new college of engineering and several new engineering departments to an established campus. Those pioneers out in Merced have the much grander challenge of building their whole university (and the surrounding community) from scratch. UC Merced is also special to me because of the traditions and history I carry with me as a UCI alumnus. Before Merced, Irvine was among the youngest UC campuses, opening its doors to students in 1965. Pictures from that time period show that California’s Orange County, where Irvine is located, was not the sprawling suburban metropolis we know today. Instead, it was a rural landscape covered with orange groves. Early pictures of the UCI under construction show an isolated campus; Merced’s construction photos look identical, but only in color. I am not ashamed to say that is was an emotional experience to drive from Merced’s city center out to the fledgling UC. Forty years from now, that country lane will be a main metropolitan thoroughfare thanks to the university being born at the end of the road. I’m sure the founding Irvine faculty enjoyed a similar drive from Santa Ana to UCI along a rural lane that eventually became State Highway 55. UC Merced, is strategically important in California because it is a doctorate-granting research university located in the Central Valley, uniquely located at California’s nexus of agriculture, environmental stewardship, and renewable energy generation (solar, wind, and agricultural fuels all are potentially viable there). In addition, it is positioned to provide higher education access to the historically underserved population of the Central Valley, which had no local UC campus until Merced came on-line. UC Merced is worth keeping an eye on. It will surely follow its other UC cousins to become a top-tier public research university within the next 40 years.University Archives...UCI Libraries...University of California, Irvinehttps://www.lib.uci.edu/libraries/collections/special/coll/university_archives/The University Archives  preserves UCI's historically significant records. Beginning with the founding of UCI in 1965, the University Archives holds materials that document the planning and growth of the campus, the development and administration of academic and administrative programs and services, faculty concerns, student life, and community relations. In addition to records created in the course of campus business, such as correspondence, memoranda, minutes, reports, plans, charts, and topical files, the University Archives also contains photographs, maps, posters, newsletters, yearbooks, brochures, video and audio recordings, and a variety of other materials. HIGHLIGHTS: Photos        President Lyndon B. Johnson unveils the UCI dedication plaque.   Students walking along Ring Road on UCI's opening day.   First flag raising at UCI.   Anteater Chronicles:the UC Irvine Story(Digital Collection) UC Merced...Photoshttp://www.ucmerced.net/Nov04/UC%20Merced/index.html G5DJ5608.jpg G5DJ5618.jpg G5DJ5623.jpg G5DJ5643.jpg G5DJ5656.jpg G5DJ5660.jpg G5DJ5661.jpg G5DJ5665.jpg Three times the trains, headaches?...Scott Jason, Reporters' Notebook...10-24-08 http://notebook.mercedsunstar.com/three_times_the_trains_headachesDuring the G Street undercrossing meeting last night, a mini-bombshell was dropped.Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway wants enough room for two more sets of tracks on the underpass.Essentially, it means the railroad company plans to run more trains through Merced. About 70 pass through the city each day on the existing set. My guess would mean that 200 some trains could be chugging through.City reps told me there are no immediate plans to expand the railway system through Merced. The company just wants the option held open.If the delays now seem bad ... Group says Merced's children near bottom in state...DANIELLE GAINEShttp://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/517438.htmlMerced County gets a "D-plus" for its care of children. The grade sounds dismal, and it is, but, to be fair, only three counties in California got higher than a "C." In the San Joaquin Valley, four counties joined Merced with "D-plus" rankings, and the remaining three counties earned "C-minus" scores.The grades were assigned by Children Now, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization working to improve children's well-being.The study examines 26 indicators of children's well-being from the percentage of newborns who are breastfed to the percentage of adolescents who feel connected to an adult. More than 79,000 children between 18 and younger live in Merced County. Sixty-two percent of children are Latino, 26 percent white, seven percent Asian-American, two percent are black and three percent are of other ethnicities.Merced County scored in the lowest third of all counties in 17 indicators, and in the top third for only four.Compared to other California counties, Merced is performing poorly on children with health insurance, performing averagely on childhood substance abuse and performing poorly on fourth grade achievement standards.HealthEight of the scorecard's 26 indicators deal with the exclusively with the physical health of Merced County's young people. The county scores among the lowest in the state in all eight of those indicators...HomeMerced County posted fair scores for the four indicators that deal with a child's home life. The county scored in the top two-thirds statewide for three of the indicators... SchoolIn the academic arena, Merced County was below the state average in four of seven indicators...CrimeMerced County scored low on all youth crime indicators. That news came as a surprise to some law enforcement officials... Modesto BeeOnce progressive Tulare is backsliding, critics say...Garth Stapleyhttp://www.modbee.com/local/story/476688.htmlTulare County edged San Joaquin County to claim top rank in The Bee's planning survey of the San Joaquin Valley's eight counties, thanks to high scores in outreach, farmland preservation, development fees and economic leadership.But that news had homegrown critics asking about honor among thieves."Plans are one thing," said Jeff Steen, an agribusinessman and co-chairman of Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth. "It's execution that truly matters."Tulare and San Joaquin counties both rake in extra money for high-visibility road projects, thanks to higher sales taxes similar to Measure S facing Stanislaus County voters next week.And leaders in Tulare County's eight cities turned heads in 1974 when they adopted the valley's first urban growth boundaries, a progressive move for a small county. The plan featured an innovative point system meant to help leaders guide development to the most logical places."That's why we may have scored well," surmised Sarah Graber, former executive director of Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth. "But the plan has been gutted."The citizens group monitors a process updating the Tulare County general plan, a document guiding growth. County supervisors recently signaled willingness to allow building of new towns in rural areas, flying in the face of smart growth principles."Tulare (County) is intent on going backward 20 years," said Ed Thompson, California director for the American Farmland Trust. His office keeps a keen eye on growth policies of all eight counties.California Attorney General Jerry Brown's office wrote a scathing 13-page letter protesting the Tulare County general plan's environmental study. It "ignores any alternative that would aggressively foster smart growth by limiting development to existing urban areas," Deputy Attorney General Susan Fiering wrote.The county's eight cities joined to hire a lawyer to guide them in similar protest.County leaders "do a good job of reaching out to citizens," Steen said. "If they get points (in The Bee survey) for outreach, they're going to do well. If they get points for listening, they will do poorly."County Supervisor Allen Ishida defended the policy switch, saying new development should be guided to poor-quality soil -- also a smart growth ideal. The county's largest cities, Visalia and Tulare, sit on its richest soil and should not be allowed to sprawl, he said."We do not direct growth," Ishida added. "It's a function of where people want to live and where developers believe they can make money."The county goes along to get its cut in tax revenue, Graber charged. "If you need money, development is the short and easy way to do it."What counties say might be a far cry from what they do...Garth Stapleyhttp://www.modbee.com/local/story/476686.htmlCounty leaders throughout the San Joaquin Valley have a hard time practicing what they preach about smart growth, a comprehensive planning survey reveals.Despite near-universal agreement that development should be channeled into cities, six of the valley's eight counties approved more than 400 homes in each of their respective unincorporated areas in 2006."If you look at their general plans, they all say the right things -- 'Direct growth away from the best lands and into cities; create mixed-use, walkable cities' -- but none of that is happening," said Ed Thompson, state director for American Farmland Trust. He has studied growth patterns in the valley for five years and advocates against prematurely developing rural areas.Planning officials in the valley's eight counties and 60 cities provided data in late 2007 and early 2008 for the far-ranging smart growth audit, sponsored by The Modesto Bee in cooperation with the Great Valley Center.With overall scores ranging from 54 to 70 percent, the eight counties collectively performed better than the 60 cities, whose scores ranged from 28 to 80 percent.The portion measuring county policies featured 40 questions in seven categories, compared with 55 questions in nine categories on the cities survey.Cities are better equipped to accommodate growth, experts agree. But developers often salivate over raw, rural land because city lots are much more expensive and harder to find in quantities that would support an entire subdivision, where serious money can be had. Also, cities generally charge more in development fees.The counties collectively appear strongest in categories measuring adequate fees and protection of farmland and natural resources. The last category produced the only perfect scores, achieved by San Joaquin, Madera and Kern counties, as well as the only score of zero for a single category; Kings County reported having no policy protecting creeks, streams or native trees.Tulare County takes top honors among the eight overall, largely thanks to a long tradition of progressive smart growth policies. Critics within say that new leaders, how- ever, are picking apart those policies and making it much easier to develop in rural, unincorporated areas."It's not the intention of the board to direct growth anywhere. The market will do that," said Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida. "But we need to give the opportunity to grow. Zoning creates economic opportu-nity."The county survey seemed to give little advantage to the valley's largest locales. Fresno and Kern counties, both about twice the size of Tulare by population, rank third and fourth among the eight.The three smallest counties by far, however -- Kings, Madera and Merced -- landed in the three bottom spots.Though four Stanislaus County cities finished among the Top 10 in city rankings, Stanislaus ranked an unremarkable fifth among counties. Stanislaus, whose planners approved 456 homes in unincorporated areas during 2006, finished second-to-last in the counties' development category, with a score of 21 percent.Measure E, also known as the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative approved by Stanislaus voters in February, could change that in future studies by directing growth into cities.Mountain House project put on back burner...George Avalos, Contra Costa Timeshttp://www.modbee.com/local/story/476689.htmlMOUNTAIN HOUSE -- A key element of Mountain House that would have brought jobs to the new town in San Joaquin County is on hold amid a foreclosure and bankruptcy that were unleashed, at least in part, by the global credit squeeze.The financial woes have torpedoed plans to develop a retail, industrial and office project along Interstate 580 on the south side of Mountain House, near the borders of Alameda County and Contra Costa County. The project was to have been built by an affiliate of Pleasanton-based Pegasus Development, which is headed by Michael Clevenger.The developers had touted the 140-acre project as a way to create jobs and potentially reduce the number of people who would have to commute from and to the emerging community."I'm disappointed this happened," San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas said. "The foreclosure will set that project back for a period of time."The backers of Mountain House were hoping that the development would ensure that the town would be more than merely another bedroom community."What Mountain House is concerned with is that we have local jobs so people don't have to commute to the Bay Area, or Stockton, or Tracy," said Morgan Groover, development manager for the Mountain House Community Services District, the government agency for the new town.Now, however, the project will remain as vacant land for the foreseeable future.In a prepared release in October 2005, Pegasus executive Clevenger outlined what he saw as the importance of the project: "We are providing services to residents so they won't have to leave to find gas, groceries, pharmacies, restaurants and health care. And we are creating a distinctive gateway to the whole Mountain House community."The land was bought for $11.9 million in July 2004 by Pegasus MH Ventures I LLC, an affiliate of Pegasus Development.At the time of the transaction, the sellers of the property, Tracy residents Charles Spatafore and his wife, Margaret, provided Pegasus with $6.7 million in financing.But in August, after a default notice on the loan, the Spatafores took back the property through a foreclosure of the loan, San Joaquin County records show.Before the foreclosure, the Pegasus MH Ventures affiliate filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize the finances of the stalled development.Neither of the Spatafores nor Clevenger returned telephone calls seeking their comment about the situation.Richard Bowles, a Walnut Creek attorney who is representing Clevenger, said his client believes a lender failed to fulfill an agreement it had with Pegasus.The big problems for the project, according to Bowles, materialized when La Jolla-based Scripps Investments & Loans did not come through with long-term financing that would have enabled the project to get under way. That was in 2007. A representative for Scripps Investments did not respond to a request for a comment.Pegasus was negotiating with multiple lenders but eventually chose Scripps, Bowles said. When Scripps did not come through, the credit markets had begun to deteriorate.Despite the setback, local officials are convinced that Mountain House, which has about 8,000 residents, will get the jobs from the project."Whenever the economy or the market turns around, this project is ready to go," Supervisor Ornellas said. "The 8,000 people living there are clamoring for the amenities that other communities have."What water, sewer fees buy...Editorial...10-26-08http://www.modbee.com/opinion/story/475941.htmlModestans' water and sewer bills have been creeping upward, and some are asking, justifiably, "What am I getting for my money?" The simple answer is an ample supply of drinkable water and the efficient disposal of residential and commercial waste -- now and for decades to come.The more detailed answer is two massive new treatment facilities and the networks of pipelines, pumps and tanks needed to treat, transport and store water and waste water.The city is implementing long-term master plans for water and sewer. Almost weekly, the City Council reviews a contract for design or construction. But much of the big work is at remote locations, and other projects are not easily visible. We thought it was a good time for an update. Consider this the view from 10,000 feet.WaterThe background: Modesto got all of its drinking water from wells until 1995, when the first phase of a surface water treatment plant was completed at Modesto Reservoir. It is operated by the Modesto Irrigation District and now provides a little less than half of the city's domestic supply. Well water and treated Tuolumne River water is blended. Around the state, wells no longer are a reliable single source for domestic water -- because of quantity and quality. Modesto is ahead of many cities in using a combination of sources.Update: The big-ticket item in the city's $100 million-plus water master plan is the second phase of the water treatment plant at Modesto Reservoir. It is under construction and expected to be operating in early 2010. The Modesto Irrigation District is the lead agency; the city is paying the $60 million cost.There are nearly 20 other water-related projects in various stages. Among the bigger ones:The Orangeburg main pipeline, nearly done, except for the paperwork. $3.5 million.Another large pipeline along the Virginia corridor, in the design phase, with construction to begin in January 2010. $14 million.Five large water tanks, planned at the north end, west side, Beard industrial area, Del Rio and Hickman, in various stages of planning and searching for or acquiring right of way.New and replacement wells in Del Rio, Waterford, the future Tivoli development and the Chrysler School neighborhood. The wells run about $2 million each.Pressure valves, pumping stations and generators to distribute water.The projects are being paid for by water customers -- households and businesses -- and through connection fees for new hookups.SewerUpgrades to the sewer treatment system total more than $450 million. About 42 percent of that will be paid by new homes, businesses and industry through connection fees. The rest will be paid, over many years, by customers through their monthly sewer bills.The city essentially was at capacity in waste-water treatment, which was affecting its ability to recruit new industries. The pressure is off because of several projects nearing completion, including an $8.5 million dissolved air flotation system at the Jennings Road sewer firm. Among the other big projects:The first phase of the tertiary waste-water treatment project at the sewer farm. It will enable the city to discharge waste water into the river year-round. $25 million.Rehabilitation of the Emerald sewer trunk, which is more than 50 years old. A 200-foot section collapsed in 2006. This project, costing $12 million to $14 million, is scheduled to go to bid in March.Rehabilitation of a 60-inch pipeline connecting the Sutter treatment plant to Jennings Road. This is in design and could cost up to $38 million.The big kahuna: phase two of the tertiary treatment plant at Jennings Road, a project that is still four or five years away and could cost $100 million.There might be a silver lining: Other agencies are contacting Modesto about purchasing its treated waste water because it will be clean enough for reuse.Fresno BeeValley's jobless problem growsOverqualified workers seen applying for posts...Tim Sheehanhttp://www.fresnobee.com/local/v-printerfriendly/story/964207.htmlSuzanne Pearson of Fresno has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree -- and the pressure of trying to find a job in the Valley's uncertain economy. For the past couple of years, Pearson, 37, has worked with a temp agency, bouncing from assignment to assignment just to keep the bills paid. She's unable to find permanent, full-time work. She's not alone. With Fresno County's unemployment rate hovering near 10% and 11% percent in Merced County (Merced Sun-Star) many experts saying a recession has begun, Pearson is among a growing legion of job-seekers flooding Valley hiring managers with applications for steady work -- even if they are overqualified.The Valley's economy isn't dependent on heavy manufacturing like the industrial Midwest, where plant closures have devastated communities and helped boost the national unemployment rate to 6.1%. But the waves from Wall Street's market tumble, the credit crisis and declining consumer confidence are rocking segments of the Valley economy once thought insulated from job losses.Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific's Eberhardt School of Business, said the Valley seems headed into a second phase of recession. After the collapse of the real-estate market and the burst homebuilding bubble, "it's spilling over into consumer spending." "We're starting to see some pullback in employment in retail, restaurants and other consumer-discretionary things," Michael said. "What we're seeing in this second phase is a more broad-based weakness; there are fewer 'safe havens' out there for jobs" except in health-care fields.For Pearson, having a bachelor's degree in applied management, a master of business administration and expertise in information technology is of little help in a tight job market. "Here in the San Joaquin Valley, accounting is what pays the bills," Pearson said of her temp gigs. "It's frustrating, because it's assignment after assignment I'm overqualified for, but there are so many people looking for work." In some instances, Pearson's education is a disadvantage. "It's discouraging to constantly hear you're overqualified; they end up hiring someone less qualified and don't even ask if you're willing to do it for less money," she said. "People are afraid they'll train me and then I'll be gone for something better in three or four months. ... But in this economy, that's not going to happen."Retail sales take a big hitThe latest Valley business sector hit hard is retail sales...Construction continues to decline...It's not just blue-collar workers who find themselves looking for work. Layoffs are being felt in midlevel and management ranks as the economy loses buoyancy...One member, former produce-marketing executive Bill Slattery, said the economic situation is "cutting across all lines, from minimum-wage counter help all the way to the professional level. Nobody's protected."Slattery, who has a bachelor's degree in agricultural business management, has applied for everything from forklift driving to management positions -- so far to no avail.Hordes of applicants...Personnel managers at some big employers are seeing far more applications now than they ever expected for some of the most mundane jobs...City officials say the economic downturn also is forcing people to apply for jobs they normally wouldn't consider in better times. In one instance, a real-estate agent applied for a custodial job, Bond said...Michael, the UOP forecaster, said he believes that while real estate and construction jobs have been hard hit, losses in those sectors may be leveling off. "It's manifesting itself in a lack of hiring rather than major layoffs," he said.Ag a boon?One job-placement professional said she believes the Valley's agricultural base puts the region in a better position than other parts of the country. "When there's a downturn in the economy, our cohorts in other parts of the United States seem to be suffering a harder fall than us," said Kathy Bray, president of Denham Resources."Now the economy's terrifying, but we're still fine," she said. "People are still hiring management-level people, we're placing controllers and chief financial officers, mostly in the ag industry, and larger companies are still hiring." Bray offered an example: One dairy company in Tulare County "with 20 $50,000-a-year jobs open right now." The jobs require special skills. She remains cautiously optimistic about where things go from here. "We've been kind of holding our breath, but it's OK," Bray said. "It's not fabulous, but it's OK." Valley air board now has a scientist in one of its seatsAppointment should add expertise in health issues...Editorialhttp://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/v-printerfriendly/story/965336.html     A crucial appointment to the board that governs the Valley's air district has been made by the governor. Henry Forman, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Merced, will fill the spot reserved for a scientist on the board. The scientist position is one of four new seats authorized by legislation last year to expand the board of the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District. Originally, the board had 11 members. Eight of them were sitting supervisors from the eight counties that make up the air district; three were members of city councils in the district. The county supervisors have often leaned toward serving the interests of business and agriculture, which aren't always supporters of aggressive efforts to clean the air. Senate Bill 719 addressed that by adding seats for a doctor and a scientist with expertise in air pollution and health issues that arise from it. In April, the governor appointed Dr. John Telles, a Fresno cardiologist, filling the spot reserved for a doctor. Now Forman has been named to the scientist post, and he seems an excellent choice. The 61-year-old is a founding faculty member at UC Merced, and his research focuses on the ways lungs react to and protect themselves from lung diseases, including asthma, cystic fibrosis and damage from pollutants. He earned his Ph.D in biochemistry from Columbia University. In addition to the seats for a doctor and scientist, the board will add two more city council members, for a total of five, under separate legislation passed this year. That will address an earlier anomaly that saw Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton -- the three largest cities in the district, often without a representative on the board. The expansion of the air board did not come without a struggle, but it now appears the effort is paying off. Telles has forced a more rigorous and skeptical approach to the board's work, and we hope the addition of Forman will continue that useful trend. Much good work has been done to clean up the Valley's air, but there is a great more left to do before we can truly call our air clean. Granite Park's rocky futureSweet visions meet prickly reality of money woes, dead fields...George Hostetter...10-25-08http://www.fresnobee.com/local/v-printerfriendly/story/963365.htmlGranite Park, the ever-changing entertainment project that's supposed to rejuvenate a struggling neighborhood in east-central Fresno, is in trouble. Again. The project is finally winning consumers and creating jobs with four new restaurants -- most notably rocker Sammy Hagar's popular Cabo Wabo Cantina. But its financial problems still may cost Fresno taxpayers $5.5 million. City Hall isn't sure where it would get the money, and may sue Granite Park's developer. Council members weren't warned about the seriousness of the crisis until this month. Council Member Mike Dages fears the worst: "There goes the [city's] reserve, right down the tubes." Granite Park developer Milt Barbis, however, says he has things under control. "Things may go slow, but, in the end, I come through," he says. Commercial/nonprofit hybridThe 42-acre project on the old Harpain's Dairy site is an unusual hybrid with two components: commercial development and nonprofit recreation. Both have money problems. Eighteen acres of the site belong to Granite Park Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Barbis that obtained a life-saving $5.2 million loan about four years ago only because a divided City Council guaranteed the debt. The foundation hasn't made a payment on that loan in a year and is about $500,000 in arrears. Bank of the West, the lender, could foreclose. If it does, the city must pay off the loan, which has grown to $5.5 million. The city's options would include selling the property or developing it into a park. But, city officials acknowledge, it's unlikely in the current real-estate market that a sale would fetch $5.5 million, and the site's limited access makes it unsuitable for a parkThe 18 acres once had soccer fields and three replica major-league ballfields. In exchange for the city's loan guarantee, the foundation agreed to make the fields available at certain times to the public. But the ballfields have deteriorated to the point where they're all but unplayable; only a single field suitable for soccer remains, and it's dead grass. Either the city or the bank may sue the foundation, says City Manager Andy Souza. He declined to say what the city might seek by going to court, other than to protect the public's interests. "It's clear the use of that land has drifted away from what was everybody's original intent," Souza says. The remaining 24 acres of the project, called The Village at Granite Park, belong to The Zone Sports Center, a for-profit group of investors that includes Barbis. They told the city in 2004 they'd turn the site into a hub of restaurants, nightclubs and boutiques. It took awhile, but four restaurants are up and running. Three others are soon to open, but full development has been stalled for lack of financing, Barbis says. He also needs more land to fulfill a vision that has expanded in the past four years. Barbis hopes to buy the dormant athletic fields from the foundation to build an amusement park. The failure of the athletic fields will be more than offset by a unique project that will attract visitors from throughout the state, he says.But for now, parts for the nearly 30 rides Barbis hopes to install remain stacked in an empty field. Barbis says he is lining up a businessman who, in exchange for controlling interest in all 42 acres, will infuse enough cash to pay off the bank loan and build everything on the project's drawing boards. Fresno "will have a project worth $120 million," Barbis says, predicting the deal will be wrapped up in early November. He declines to identify the investor. Should the deal fall through, Barbis says, he has another equity investor waiting in the wings. Others aren't so sure of a happy ending. Dages, who cast the lone vote against the loan guarantee, says he doesn't want to be an "I-told-you-so" guy. But his scowl betrays him. Says Dages: "We should not be in the business of guaranteeing loans for private investment and private profit."It's got glamour ...And fields of lost dreamsIn December 2004, when it guaranteed the loan, the City Council approved an agreement that guaranteed public access to the athletic fields through 2012. The city's aim was to spur economic growth in a neighborhood passed over in the city's flight to the north. But, city officials emphasized, it was nearly as important that the foundation provide green space and recreational opportunities in an area woefully short of both. The agreement gives City Hall the clout to enforce this guarantee. But officials did little while the athletic facilities fell apart or disappeared.Where once there was room for many fields of various sizes, now there's only a modest-sized square of dead grass. The remainder is filled with potted trees, steel supports for amusement rides and storage sheds. City Manager Souza says the city realized its collateral was wasting away, but had only two options to persuade the foundation to maintain the assets' value: persuasion or foreclosure. The latter option meant coming up with more than $5 million or taking over loan payments, then either finding more money to bring the assets up to usable shape or trying to sell them in a buyer's market. So, Souza says, City Hall has tried persuasion. Obviously, Souza adds, it didn't work: "We are where we are."...And who's left out of all this discussion over the demise of Granite Park Kids Foundation's once-grand vision? The neighborhood residents who were to be its beneficiaries...Water Education FoundationClimate Change SummitSpace in DWR and WEF Sponsored Event Still Availablehttp://www.watereducation.org:80/doc.asp?id=852&parentID=849A 1-1/2 day summit, Climate Change: Managing Risk & Uncertainty, set for Nov. 13-14 at the Long Beach Hilton, will bring together top experts from local water agencies, cities, state government, and those in the water community connected with state and federal water systems, to discuss the effects of climate change and adaptation on California's water management. The summit will address the challenges and opportunities facing California in the development of water policies in the face of climate change. The summit is sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources and the Water Education Foundation.  Don’t miss this opportunity to discuss climate change impacts and adaptation with leading water experts. Summit Registration...Sacramento BeeDan Walters: Delta Vision not likely to succeed...Dan Waltershttp://www.sacbee.com/walters/story/1343871.htmlThe Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the Pacific Coast's largest estuary and a critical habitat for wildlife, as well as the state's major source of water – but it's in crisis with deteriorating levees, threats from global warming and earthquakes, and court-ordered restrictions on pumping due to water quality problems.How often have we been given that dark picture? Countless times, and twice more this month, once in a report from the Delta Vision Task Force, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lay the basis for new water policy, and again in a state-sponsored scientific study of Delta issues.Delta Vision recommends compromises among the countless competing ideological and economic stakeholders, better conveyance facilities and a unified system of governing water use, land use and other Delta issues, replacing dozens of agencies that have pieces of the authority. How often have we heard that prescription for the Delta? Just about as often as we have heard the list of its ills. So does Delta Vision's vision have any greater chance of succeeding than past efforts, including one called Cal-Fed that spent about $5 billion only to fail? It would be nothing short of a miracle for two very salient reasons.One is that the water conflict isn't really about water. As important as it may be, water is merely the battleground for the larger debate over how California should develop, especially housing, as its population grows.There are other fronts in that battle, most notably transportation. This year's Senate Bill 375 would redirect transportation financing away from roads serving tracts of single-family homes and toward mass transit connected to higher-density development.Water, however, is an even more powerful factor in development than transportation. Simply put – and this is now state law – a housing project cannot proceed without having a specific source of water, and the Delta's increasing unreliability for water helps major environmental groups influence development patterns.That's why they persuaded voters 26 years ago to reject a "peripheral canal," which would have improved both the Delta environment and water supply reliability – the same solution that Delta Vision and other authorities endorse. And that brings us to the second reason why Delta Vision's report is unlikely to generate policy.The state's water stalemate is a symptom of its chronic inability to deal with issues that arise out of a fast-growing and fast-changing society. Given the ability of any major stakeholder on any issue to block any action that it finds noxious (such as the peripheral canal in 1982), a major water policy advance would require virtual unanimity among dozens of interests. That's virtually impossible to achieve.Ergo, don't expect Delta Vision to be any more successful than past efforts at breaking the stalemate, even as the state experiences worsening water shortages and the Delta continues to deteriorate. Stockton RecordSeptember new home sales rise by 2.7 percent (7:34 a.m.)http://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081027/A_NEWS/81027004/-1/A_NEWSWASHINGTON (AP) — Sales of new homes recorded an unexpected increase in September as median home prices dropped to the lowest level in four years, the Commerce Department reported today. Sales of new single-family homes rose by 2.7 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 464,000 homes, Commerce said. Economists had expected sales would drop from the August level. The median price of a new home sold in September declined by 9.1 percent from a year ago to $218,400, the lowest price level since September 2004, a period when home prices were rising rapidly as the country experienced a five-year housing boom. The surprising increase in September sales still left them 33.1 percent below the level of a year ago as the country is battered by the worst slump in housing in decades. The report on a rise in new home sales followed news last week that sales of existing homes rose in September by 5.5 percent, the largest monthly gain in more than five years. Analysts are not convinced that the sales increases are signaling a bottom for the housing market. They note that the September gains came before the latest upheavals in financial markets which have raised new worries about the overall state of the economy. Many analysts believe the country has already entered a recession. They are forecasting significant increases in job losses which will make it even harder to mount a sustained rebound in housing. New home sales fell by 21.4 percent in the Northeast and were down 5.8 percent in the Midwest. However, sales rose by a sharp 22.7 percent in the West, a region of the country which has seen some of the biggest declines in prices, a development which has spurred sales. Sales were up 0.7 percent in the South. The rise in sales left a total of 394,000 unsold new homes on the market at the end of September, down a record 25.4 percent from the number of unsold homes on the market at the end of September 2007. Builders have been sharply cutting back on production, trying to get inventories more in line with sales. Even with the latest drop in total unsold new homes, the inventory represents a 10.4 months supply at the September sales pace, still a historically high level. The inventory of unsold existing homes is also remaining near historic highs as that market is being increased by a record wave of home foreclosures. The 2.7 percent rise in sales for September new home sales followed a big 12.6 percent drop in August, which was revised sharply lower from the government’s initial estimate. Sales in July had risen by 3.6 percent.San Francisco ChronicleUS claims rule changes don't threaten wildlife...DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writerhttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/10/27/national/w104507D09.DTL&type=printableThe Bush administration on Monday said that changes it wants to make to endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office will have no significant environmental consequences.That's the conclusion of a draft assessment released by the Interior Department that represents one of the last remaining hurdles for the regulations to become final before Jan. 20.The administration in August proposed letting federal agencies approve power plants, dams and other projects without consulting government wildlife experts in some cases. Current regulations require government biologists to be consulted in all cases — even when a project is unlikely to harm threatened wildlife or the places they live.The administration acknowledges the change will reduce the number of consultations required under the 35-year-old law. But in its evaluation, it concludes that the new regulations will focus government expertise on cases where it is most needed and result in no harm to species or habitats protected by the statute.Environmentalists, however, say the review — which was completed by lawyers and political appointees rather than scientists — failed to consider all of the environmental repercussions.Noah Greenwald, director of the biodiversity program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said he was particularly concerned that the agency failed to thoroughly evaluate the part of the proposal that exempts the gases blamed for global warming from endangered species reviews."The assessment continues the Bush administration's attempt to sweep environmental problems under the rug in a mad rush to weaken a rule that protects endangered species," Greenwald said.Tina Kreisher, an agency spokeswoman, said that both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed the assessment and signed off on its conclusions. A 10-day public comment period will help decide whether a more thorough environmental review is needed, she said.The release of the environmental assessment on the proposed rules follows the conclusion of a 60-day public comment period, which ended earlier this month. The agency received 300,000 comments on the proposal, most of them negative. Last week, officials called 15 people to Washington to review all the comments in 32 hours.On the Net:  Interior Department: www.doi.gov/issues/esaOutdoors: As lakes empty, sunken treasures emerge...Tom Stienstra...10-26-08http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/26/SPTH13N9HB.DTL&type=printablePlummeting water levels at many reservoirs in Northern California this fall are unveiling an array of sunken treasures, including cars and boats, old tunnels and roads, and even towns and the remains of historic gold-mining operations.The ambitious scrounger can also find hundreds of dollars worth of fishing lures on rocky snags and bushes now high and dry.Enlightened anglers can study exposed lake bottoms and find all of the best fishing spots for future years, that is, the ledges, rock piles, holes, channels and old trees where fish hide and feed.If you haven't seen the phenomenon, the low water at Shasta, Oroville, Camanche, San Luis, Berryessa and many other lakes can be shocking. Some lakes, such as Shastina, Success and Kaweah, are empty except for little pools near the dams.These scenes are the result of so much water being sent south the past two years in a period when California has received 70 percent of historic rain and snowfall.All the empty lakes have created the chance for real-life scavenger hunts, adventures where you never know what you might find. Here are some examples:Shasta Lake, Shasta County: The state's largest reservoir, with 370 miles of shoreline, is down 155 feet and is only 29 percent full. That is the lowest since 1992 (also down 155 feet). The upper lake arms are now dry canyons, unveiling ghosts of the past. Off Lakeshore Drive at Lakehead, you can see an old railroad tunnel and a train trestle, an old bridge at Doney Creek, and near Antlers Resort, an old bridge for Highway 99 has reappeared. Same thing in Salt Creek, where an old Highway 99 Bridge from 1925 has emerged above the water. Near the dam, you can see this massive tower that juts straight up 50 feet out of the water. That tower is what is left of the facility that hoisted concrete when the dam was built. Note: At the end of the drought of 1976-77, Shasta was down 230 feet, the lowest since being built.Lake Oroville, Butte County: Several deep canyons feed into an expansive lake body at Oroville. The lake is down 225 feet at the dam, 30 percent full, so the lake arms look like a series of miniature Grand Canyons. In turn, there have been a series of finds: one boat and a dozen vehicles. The record low from the 1978 drought year is only 34 feet away.Lake Camanche, Amador County: At 35 percent full, Camanche has a ways to go before its underwater town is revealed, as it was in 1992, when the lake was drained to near empty. But history galore is being revealed up the Mokelumne River Canyon arm of the lake. Along the exposed lakebed, you can see cables, brackets and tailings that date back to the gold miners. In some cases, now high above the water line, you can spot the foundations on the canyon walls for historic bridges.Lake Berryessa, Napa County: At Berryessa, everybody watches the water level at the Glory Hole. It is located near the dam, visible from Highway 128. The Glory Hole looks like a concrete cylinder that juts straight up from the water. When the lake fills, water spills over the top of cylinder and into a 72-foot opening, creating a spillway downstream to Putah Creek. It's an odd sight right now with 26 feet of the cylinder exposed. If the lake goes down another 5 feet, the underwater ghost town of Monticello will start to be revealed, including a concrete bridge and several building foundations. Capell Cove, a favorite fishing spot, looks like a dry canyon.Los Angeles TimesBullet train would be grand, but can we afford it?...George Skelton, Capitol Journalhttp://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap27-2008oct27,0,2271973,print.columnReporting from Sacramento — It would place California on the cutting edge of transportation in America. It would be a job creator. Environmentally clean. And fun.But can we afford it?The state is essentially broke and running on red ink. School and health programs already have been cut, and more slashing seems inevitable. The economy is sputtering, and tax revenues are tanking.Capitol politicians are gridlocked -- have been for years -- on how to honestly balance the state's books.Is this any time for the state to start building a very expensive high-speed rail line to carry people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours?That's the question Californians are being asked by Proposition 1A, which would authorize a $9.95-billion bond issue to serve as a down payment on an electric bullet train, the first in the nation.The initial phase, a line from Anaheim to San Francisco via the San Joaquin Valley, would cost an estimated $33 billion. Federal, local and private money would pay for $24 billion, but none has been committed.Ultimately, train backers say, the line would be extended south to San Diego and north to Sacramento. (The initial line would veer west near Merced and climb over the Pacheco Pass to the Bay Area.) The second phase would cost an additional $12 billion. But the timing and the financing are very iffy.Wouldn't it be prudent to hold off launching this ambitious project until the economy rebounds and Sacramento, presumably, returns to living within its means? And the Capitol gets its fiscal act together?To the contrary, say backers, now is exactly the time to begin building."Bad economic times are when you want to create jobs," says Rod Diridon of San Jose, former board chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and a tenacious advocate of the bullet train."This is a jobs bill. It's the same thing FDR did in the 1930s -- put a substantial amount of money into building facilities. That creates economic vitality and commerce."It was easier for FDR. The federal government can print money. States must balance their budgets, at least ostensibly.Backers contend that the project would create 160,000 construction-related jobs. That's why a coalition of 2,000 heavy construction companies and 80,000 union workers -- called the California Alliance for Jobs -- is a staunch supporter of Prop. 1A.Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not officially endorsed the measure. But he virtually did while answering questions following a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Sept. 26."Just because we had a problem with the budget does not mean that people should vote 'no' on the rail system," the governor said. "We need high-speed rail."Our rail system in America is so old we are driving the same speed we did 100 years ago. . . . If we want to have mass transportation, we should modernize those things. . . . All over the world we see high-speed rails. . . . We should start here and show leadership and show the rest of the country how to do it."The same for building new water facilities, he said. The state should not hold back on projects "that are good for the future" just because the Capitol is spewing red ink. "Budget crises in California come and go."But there's a significant difference between a necessity such as water and a luxury like a 200 mph bullet train. Schwarzenegger also has been pressing for a future bond issue in the $11-billion range to update California's aging, inadequate, eco-destroying water system.There needs to be more prioritizing.The state currently owes about $53 billion on infrastructure bonds and still has $68 billion authorized but unsold. Each $1 billion borrowed requires an annual $65 million check written off the general fund. The state currently is paying $6.7 billion annually in principal and interest on bonds.The bullet train bonds, assuming a 30-year payoff, would cost the general fund an average $647 million per year in principal and interest totaling $19.4 billion.The Prop. 1A camp advertises that the 800-mile rail line would be built "without raising taxes." That's one of its problems: no dedicated revenue source, unlike previous great public works. Pat Brown's water project was financed primarily by irrigation districts and municipalities contracting for the water. The freeway system was financed by taxes paid at the gas pump.The bullet bonds would drain money from other general fund programs: education, healthcare, welfare, prisons, parks.Also, while all Californians would pay, only those living along the line could easily ride.And ridership has been wildly overestimated, professor James Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program, recently told Times reporter Eric Bailey. So have construction costs, train speeds, travel time and profit forecasts, he continued. "It's a dumb project."A report by the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, contended the rail line could wind up costing up to $81 billion and lose $4 billion annually."The current high-speed rail plan is a fairy tale," wrote Adrian Moore, the study's director.The high-speed rail authority disputes all that. But it failed to prepare an updated business plan by Sept. 1, as ordered by the Legislature. That's because the state budget didn't get enacted until Sept. 23 -- 85 days late -- and the authority didn't have enough money for the updating, it says.They're working on a revised plan, but it probably won't be ready until after the Nov. 4 election.So the Capitol is dysfunctional and the rail plan is outdated. Those aren't public confidence builders.Actually, I'm confident the bullet train would work fine. It would be a terrific alternative to miserable air travel on airlines that treat passengers like cattle, or to long, boring, hazardous car trips. A rolling "Field of Dreams" -- build it and they will ride. I'm just not confident of the shaky financing or that California, given the difficulty of raising taxes, can afford this luxury without sacrificing genuine necessities. It's a shame the state has fallen into that position, but it's the reality.Washington PostGetting the Lead OutThe Bush administration slashes the airborne limit...Editorialhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/26/AR2008102601776_pf.htmlPRESIDENT BUSH has taken his fair share of lumps from us and others concerned about his seemingly all-talk-and-no-action approach to the deterioration of the environment. That's why, when his administration does something of benefit -- in this case, cutting the limit on airborne lead by 90 percent -- he should be given his due.The Environmental Protection Agency's action this month marked the first time in 30 years that the regulation had been strengthened, from 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. The Oct. 16 announcement by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson was not unforeseen. The agency was under court order to do something as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. What wasn't known was whether Mr. Johnson would follow the advice of agency staff experts and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. They recommended the drastically low lead limit he ultimately adopted.Children get exposed to lead after it falls to the ground and mixes with indoor dust and soil. Scientific studies -- more than 6,000, says the EPA -- have shown that exposure to lead was damaging the health of children at levels lower than the old federal limit. Those reports have shown a link between lead exposure and IQ loss and other developmental damage in children.Lead has been outlawed from use in gasoline and paint since the 1970s. This led to a 97 percent reduction in the average amount of lead in the air between 1980 and 2005. But lead is still getting into the atmosphere from 16,000 sources (smelters, metal mines, waste incinerators and aviation fuel), which pump out 1,300 tons of it each year. The new regulation would be enforced by establishing a monitoring system in cities of more than 500,000 people and by requiring states to set up ambient air monitors near sources that release more than one ton of lead annually.The one hitch in the EPA's plan is that there are fewer than 200 air lead monitors nationwide. Mr. Johnson plans to bump that number to more than 300. The agency certainly has time to get the equipment needed. The regulation doesn't take effect until 2017.Wal-Mart cutting U.S. store openings further...Reutershttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/27/AR2008102701761_pf.htmlCHICAGO (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) is slowing the pace of U.S. store openings and cutting back on capital spending, as it seeks to boost sales at existing locations by remodeling stores and improving its merchandise selection.The world's largest retailer also said on Monday that as the U.S. economy reels from tighter credit, mounting job losses and falling home prices, it is attracting more higher-income shoppers.Traffic at stores serving households with income above $65,000 has been growing much faster than at the chain as a whole, Wal-Mart U.S. President and Chief Executive OfficerEduardo Castro-Wright said at the retailer's annual analysts' meeting, which was broadcast over the Internet.Wal-Mart's U.S. division plans to open 191 stores in the current fiscal year, which ends in early 2009, and 142 to 157 stores in the next fiscal year, Castro-Wright said. The company opened 218 U.S. stores in fiscal 2008.Wal-Mart also plans $5.8 billion to $6.4 billion in capital expenditures this fiscal year for its U.S. division, down from $9.1 billion last year. In fiscal year 2010, it plans tospend $6.3 billion to $6.8 billion, Castro-Wright said.Wal-Mart's efforts to manage its balance sheet and capital spending more conservatively in recent years are now paying off with low interest rates in the tight market for short-term corporate credit, its chief executive said.In the last several weeks the company has borrowed several hundred million dollars in the commercial paper market as it readies for the holiday season at an interest rate of "substantially less" than 2 percent, Wal-Mart Stores Inc CEO Lee Scott said.The average rate for commercial paper was 1.96 percent in the week ended October 24, down from 2.12 percent a week earlier, the U.S. Federal Reserve said.Wal-Mart has been touting its low prices to win business in a tough economy, and Scott, who stressed that "Christmas will come on December 25" despite the economy, said that Wal-Mart will have the best prices in the market for the holiday season.He also said that in tough economic times, shoppers want to "treat their families right" when they can, and that this was evident in sales of children's apparel and Halloween costumes.(Reporting by Brad Dorfman and Nicole Maestri in New York, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)Public Pension Funds Lose Billions in Wall St. Turmoil...Peter Whoriskeyhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/27/AR2008102701751_pf.htmlThe market downturn is ravaging public pension funds across the United States, with many state and local governments seeing more than 20 percent of their retirement pools swept away in the turmoil.Even before the financial crisis, many large pension funds were considered to be inadequately funded, according to the Government Accountability Office. The losses could force some states and local governments to ask taxpayers to pay more into the funds or to demand more contributions from the police, teachers and other government employees the pensions cover.Public pension funds dropped 14.8 percent in value for the year that ended Sept. 30, according to Northern Trust, the investment company. The funds, which typically have most of their money in stocks, likely have dropped far more because the markets have dropped another 20 percent since then."We expect this is going to be the worst year we've seen since we've been tracking the funds," said William Frieske, of Northern Trust Investment Risk and Analytical Services, which began watching the funds 14 years ago. "It's got all the hallmarks of a bad -- really bad -- year."Virginia's retirement fund, for example, has dropped about 20 percent since July 1, plummeting from $55 billion to $44 billion. Most of that fund was invested in stocks.The California Public Employees' Retirement System lost 20 percent of its portfolio since July 1.The Maryland pension fund was down 17 percent for the year that ended Sept. 30, with about 58 percent of the fund invested in stocks. Officials are expecting further significant dropoffs when October's market plunges are calculated in."We have losses," said R. Dean Kenderdine, director of the Maryland retirement fund. "We anticipate that the market is going to return as it always has. How long that will be is uncertain."In the meantime, we will continue to meet our obligations to our beneficiaries," he said.Public pension funds pay for more than 27 million people, according to federal statistics. The funds are supported through a combination of taxpayer money, investment returns and employee contributions.Between 2002 and 2006, an increasing number of those funds have been inadequately funded to support future payments to retirees, according to the Government Accountability Office. Twenty-seven of 65 large pension funds were inadequately funded as of 2006, the GAO reported.The shortfall stems from the market decline in 2001, an increase in pension benefits, and a decrease in taxpayer contribution, pension administrators say.But some critics have said one of the problems is that many public pension funds unwisely project that their investments will return 8 percent annually on average -- when in fact, returns could be far lower.The market plunge played havoc on the careful calculations actuaries make to ensure that there are enough savings to cover future retirees. Roughly 60 percent of public pension funds are invested in stocks, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.The impact of the recent market dropoff on state and local government likely will be somewhat delayed, however.Many public funds do not recalculate what is necessary to replenish their funds until June 30. By then, the market may have recovered some.Moreover, many funds recognize gains and losses over a five-year period, not straight away, in order to avoid reflecting the volatility of the markets.Earlier gains in Virginia's fund, for example, have helped balance some of the recent losses, for example, officials said."Pension funds are long-term and designed to ride out short-term volatility," said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. "As with all investors, public pension funds have taken a hit. But they won't have to pay out all of their money next year, either."New York TimesWilderness Within Reach...Editorialhttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/27/opinion/27mon4.html?sq=conservation&st=cse&scp=4&pagewanted=printIt looks increasingly likely that both the Senate and the House will return to Washington after the election to address the economy and, possibly, to pass a new stimulus bill. If they do, we urge them to find time for one other piece of business — a public lands bill that, at modest expense, could add nearly two million acres to the nation’s store of permanently protected wilderness. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has promised to consider the bill. A similar commitment is now required from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose home state of California stands to benefit greatly.The bill consists of more than 140 separate public land proposals, including 15 wilderness measures that would forever protect wild lands in eight states — including 517,000 acres in Idaho’s Canyonlands, 470,000 acres in California’s Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains, and 11,700 acres of Lake Superior shoreline in northern Michigan. Wilderness areas are more strictly protected from commercial activities than any other public lands, including national parks. And all of these would be welcome additions to a wilderness system that now covers about 107 million acres.One novel feature of the bill is a provision aimed at raising the environmental consciousness of the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the bulk of the country’s public lands for often contrary purposes, including conservation and oil and gas drilling. The bill identifies 26 million acres of public lands and 850 sites of special natural, archeological and cultural value — including a dozen or so national monuments — and entrusts the bureau with restoring and protecting them for future generations. The omnibus package is a bipartisan proposal and the product of years of negotiations among federal, state and local officials, conservation groups and private citizens. President Bush has indicated that he would sign it. Its only real enemy is time. Failure to approve it this year would require many of the negotiations to start all over again. Congress should not miss this chance. CNN MoneyPersonal bankruptcies on the riseThree years after the passing of new legislation aimed at reducing personal bankruptcies, 2008 filings approach the one-million mark...Jessica Dicklerhttp://money.cnn.com/2008/10/24/pf/bankruptcy_filings/index.htm?postversion=2008102711NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- In 2005, Congress passed a bill aimed at reducing the number of personal bankruptcy filings. But that was before a housing meltdown, a credit crunch and a global economic downturn. In the midst of the financial crisis, more and more Americans are filing for bankruptcy. And experts say the numbers are likely to get worse. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect three years ago this month, increased restrictions for Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings by applying a "means test" which would disqualify many consumers with higher incomes from discharging their debts. Its supporters claimed the new rules would reign in abuses of bankruptcy laws, decongest the courts and educate consumers on money management. But after a steep dropoff immediately after the law took effect, bankruptcy filings are now on the rise again. "The 2005 amendment was designed to make it more complex, more expensive and more difficult," said Professor Jack Williams, the American Banking Institute's resident scholar. But, "the people who thought they could reduce the number of filings have failed." And the bill had other unintended results. Satisfying the means test become a difficult process, plus filers were also required to seek mandatory credit counseling and provide proof. All the additional paperwork further complicated the filing process, causing bankruptcy attorneys to raise their rates significantly. "Bankruptcy became potentially more complex," said Stephen Elias, a bankruptcy attorney and author of "How To File For Chapter 7 Bankruptcy." "And with more paperwork and due diligence required, lawyers doubled their fees. Personal bankruptcies filed in the federal courts totaled 934,009 from June 2007 to June 2008, up more than 28 percent from the 727,167 petitions filed in the same period a year earlier, according to the latest figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The reasons for the sharp uptick? Rising consumer debt coupled with the mortgage meltdown left many consumers saddled with too much debt, Williams explained, and a rising number turned to bankruptcy protection. And with rising interest rates and a slowing economy, the number of filings will likely get even worse. "I expect bankruptcies in 2008 to exceed 1.2 million filings," Williams said. Next year, bankruptcy filings could increase by another 15% to 20%, he said, as personal income is outpaced by inflation. New laws, same old problemsIn the weeks before the law went into effect, many cash-strapped consumers rushed to file, causing a record number of bankruptcies in 2005. But just after the law passed, the number of filings dropped off dramatically. That's because, under the new law, it became harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, which would let them discharge their debts and get what's known as a "fresh start." In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, your assets, minus those exempted by your state, are liquidated and given to creditors, and many of your remaining debts are cancelled. Since many Chapter 7 filers don't have assets that qualify for liquidation, credit card companies and other creditors can get nothing. The Bankruptcy Act aimed to push more debtors toward Chapter 13 filings, which require them to repay at least some of their debts within five years. This law was a boon for the credit card industry, which could recoup more losses from defaulting credit card customers under Chapter 13 filings. But only those debtors with income above their state's median, who could also afford to pay 25 percent of their unsecured debt, were forced to file Chapter 13, Elias said. And few people actually fell into that category. Chapter 7 filings still far outnumber Chapter 13. Chapter 7 filings totaled 615,748 through June, up nearly 37 percent from the year before. Meanwhile, Chapter 13 filings totaled 344,421, up 17 percent from the year-earlier period. Experts agree that Chapter 7 is often the best option for consumers saddled with insurmountable debt. "The whole value of doing a personal bankruptcy is to discharge the debt," said Eric Tyson, author of "Personal Finance for Dummies." "The bottom line is that if you file for bankruptcy, your credit is trashed, it doesn't make any sense to do that if you're not going to get the relief." The only benefit to filing Chapter 13, according to Williams, is the opportunity to hold onto your home. That's if your mortgage company is willing to work with you on a repayment plan. For those considering it, experts warn that filing for bankruptcy should always be a last resort, since it can damage your credit for many years. And before seeking advice, be wary of any potential conflicts of interest from credit counseling agencies or bankruptcy lawyers that could potentially profit from your position, Tyson said. "I encourage people to get educated before they seek counseling or get an attorney."New home sales tick up 2.7%New home sales show some signs of life, but September sales were still a third lower than year-ago levels...Les Christie http://money.cnn.com/2008/10/27/real_estate/September_new_home_sales/index.htm?postversion=2008102714NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales of newly constructed homes rose in September, according to the monthly report from the U.S. Census Bureau, inching up 2.7% from August to an annualized rate of 464,000. The reading was above the consensus forecast of 450,000, according to economists surveyed by Briefing.com, and up slightly from the 17-year low in August, which saw 452,000 new home sales.But the reading was still the worst September for new home sales since 1981. Sales are down 33.1% from September of 2007, and far below the pace of the boom years. In 2005, for example, 1.3 million new homes were sold.In response to slower sales, home builders have been reducing their production. As a result inventory has fallen, but there were still about 394,000 new single family residences on the market at the end of September. At the current pace of sales, that would take 10.4 months to sell through. The median selling price for a new home was $218,400 during the month, down from $221,900 in August, while the mean selling price was $275,500, up from $263,900. Sales up where prices are lowest"We're clearly seeing some pick-up in regional areas where home prices have fallen," said Mike Larson, a real estate analyst with Weiss Research. "The drops have spawned some bottom fishing."Indeed, according to the report new homes sales jumped 22% in the West, which has seen some of the nation's steepest price drops, while sales in other regions were down or flat. However, sales in that region are still off nearly 38% on a year over year basis.Larson added that homebuilders have made a concerted effort to move inventory by rolling out incentives such as free upgrades and reduced rate financing. That means that buyers may be getting even better deals than the lower median home prices indicate."The true price decline is probably even greater," said Dave Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).About 65% of homebuilders surveyed by the NAHB report offering customers free upgrades, such as marble countertops, according to Seiders.Other popular incentives include paying closing costs, which 57% of homebuilders report doing, and buying down mortgage interest rates, a practice reported by 21% of companies. About 24% of builders have even been helping customers sell their existing homes, and 15% are accepting trade-ins.Although Larson conceded that the latest Census Bureau numbers were positive, he cautioned that they were tallied before the financial crisis fully took hold in mod-September."The rest of 2008 will probably not be as good," he said.More turmoil aheadHomebuilders seem to agree with that assessment. Earlier this month, the NAHB reported that builder confidence had fallen to a record low."Our surveys of builders show ongoing concern over financial market turmoil," said Seiders, "as well as weakness in the general economy and in the job market."Two housing industry experts cautioned that the uptick in new home sales, as well as the slight rise in existing home sales reported last week, should be kept in perspective. "The fact that new houses are selling is good news," said Nicholas Retsinas, of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, "but monthly numbers are very volatile." And Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight points out that these September figures are being compared to a very poor August report. "The September numbers were a small bounce back from the double-digit plunge of the month before," said Newport. "But what really struck me was that new home sales in the western region were down 38% [year-over-year] while Septembers existing home sales were up 34% in that region." The problem: New home builders are competing with dirt-cheap existing homes that are in foreclosure. About 40% of sales out west are distressed properties, homes that have been repossessed by lenders or are short sales in which lenders agree to sell a home for less than what is owed on it. Builders, who have to cover their costs, can only slash prices so much.Add to that the current economic and financial market turmoil - especially job losses - and you have a recipe for hard times ahead in the home construction industry, according to Retsinas."The most important factor influencing home sales is jobs," he said. "That does not bode well for the housing market."