The year’s top 10 stories

From water to Walmart, swine flu to state budget crisis, 2009 was challenging

Gov. Schwarzenegger stunned lawmakers and many others when he announced, during the signing of the July budget revision agreement, that he had unilaterally cut an additional $489 million in services using his line-item veto. Many of those cuts later were deemed illegal and restored.

Gov. Schwarzenegger stunned lawmakers and many others when he announced, during the signing of the July budget revision agreement, that he had unilaterally cut an additional $489 million in services using his line-item veto. Many of those cuts later were deemed illegal and restored.


California’s budget crisis was so pervasive, its impacts so widely felt, that in Chico and elsewhere in the state it was easily the biggest story of the year. Of course, it was inseparable from—and made worse by—the recession, carried over from 2008, and its effects on housing, employment and businesses. Schools, health services, in-home care, local governments—all were hit hard by the crisis. And, as always, water and fisheries issues were a big deal in Butte County and statewide.

Locally, the final resolution of the disc-golf issue and a gold mine near Butte College made our top-10 list, as did the controversy over Walmart’s proposed expansion of its Chico store. Swine flu scared us, the TANC project tanked, and violent crime had a way of reminding us that Chico is getting bigger.

Here are the year’s top stories, as selected by the CN&R’s editors.

Budget crisis blasts state

As 2009 began, California was wracked by recession, and state government faced a projected $42 billion shortfall between expenses and revenues. But the Legislature had been gridlocked for months, unable to come up with a budget update that could garner the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

Finally, in mid-February, a breakthrough: Lawmakers approved a compromise reached behind closed doors by the governor and legislative leaders (the so-called “Big Five”). It was a mix of spending cuts (abhorred by Democrats) and temporary tax increases (abhorred by Republicans). Problem was, several of the budget items required adjustments to previously passed ballot measures and needed voter approval. A special election was scheduled for May 19.

To the governor and lawmakers, the six ballot initiatives made sense and were a necessary part of the compromise. To voters already angry at Sacramento for its perceived failure to govern, however, they just seemed like more legislative chicanery. Only one passed: a provision mandating that elected officials receive no pay raise in years when the state is facing a deficit.

The immediate result was that the state still faced a $24 billion deficit. And by June state Controller John Chiang was saying the state was running out of money and would have to issue IOUs beginning July 2. (The IOU program lasted until Sept. 4.)

Gov. Schwarzenegger, convinced that voters were opposed to any new taxes, insisted on budget cuts, and Democratic lawmakers, seeing no alternative, went along with him. On July 24, they approved a revised budget that cut health care and education, social services and prisons, initiated furloughs for state employees, tightened welfare and in-home-care eligibility, and proposed to sell off state properties. The deal also included $8 billion in borrowing, raiding funds from local governments and various accounting maneuvers.

Subsequently, the governor used a line-item veto to cut another $489 million from Medi-Cal funding, Healthy Families insurance for low-income kids, AIDS prevention and treatment, and state parks. He also eliminated funding for the Williamson Act, a move that cost Butte County $600,000 and Glenn County $900,000.

Resistance to the cuts was fierce and widespread, and the courts have since upheld many of the challenges to them, restoring funding. And the Legislature figured out alternative ways of funding some slashed programs, including Healthy Families and domestic-violence shelters.

But the impacts have been profound. California’s safety net protecting the poor has been shredded. Mental-health services, Medi-Cal dental and other services for adults, mammograms for low-income women, drug-treatment programs, services for the disabled and elderly—all have been drastically cut or eliminated altogether.

College and university fees have gone up dramatically, making higher education more difficult, especially for low-income students, and UC, CSU and community college leaders are warning of a grave threat to the state’s visionary Master Plan for Higher Education.

And the budget deficit persists. By early December, it was projected to be $20.7 billion going into the 2010-11 budget session, nearly one-fourth of the general fund’s projected expenses of $85 billion.

Budget cuts hit home

When the state of California sneezes, local governments and services catch colds.

Since passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the state has been the money spout for local agencies, and this year it’s passed many of its budget problems onto them by shutting off the spigot.

How painful the cuts are seems to depend on how well an agency has prepared for them. The city of Chico, for example, foresaw problems as early as 2007, when city officials recognized that they were taking in less money than they were spending. The city manager ordered 7.5 percent across-the-board cuts and, in order to avoid layoffs, the city’s police and fire unions agreed to renegotiate their contracts downward, taking no pay increases and paying more for benefits.

The result has been a budget that provides fewer but still satisfactory services while staying in balance, despite declining revenues. This year the city dealt with an $8.5 million shortfall with a combination of fund transfers, staff attrition, cuts in funding to community-based organizations, budgetary fine-tuning, delaying replacement of vehicles and equipment, and continuance of the 7.5-percent reduction strategy of 2008-09. No layoffs were needed.

The single most controversial cut was a reduction of $55,000 in supplementary funding to the Chico branch of the county library that would have kept it open an additional 25 hours. Library supporters turned out in droves seeking restoration of the funding, but the council was unwilling to make an exception.

Butte County has faced a tougher haul. In early March, it was looking at a $14 million shortfall for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and more than 100 jobs were proposed for elimination.

The most controversial move was implementation of daily brownouts at two of the county’s 12 fire stations on a rotating basis. Residents of foothills areas were especially upset about this, but the supervisors felt they had no choice.

After making a series of quick cuts worth more than $4 million in March, trimming what was left of the 2008-09 budget, in mid-May the supervisors cut more than $10 million more, or 8.5 percent, from the county’s $127 million 2009-10 budget. A last-minute deal Sheriff Perry Reniff made to house federal prisoners was all that kept it from being $11.5 million. The receipt of $1.5 million in federal stimulus funds also helped.

By the end of the year, supervisors were asking if there were any way fire funding could be restored. At a special meeting Dec. 14, however, they got the bad news that, even without considering what funds the state might take to deal with its huge deficit, the county is projected to face multimillion-dollar shortfalls again by 2011-12.

In education, Chico’s schools have found themselves facing a shortfall that could result in state takeover. The problem, as the CN&R explained in a Nov. 19 cover story (“The $6 million question,” by Leslie Layton), is that in its effort to provide the many services and programs parents have wanted, the district overextended itself and didn’t have sufficient funds in reserve to deal with a combination of declining enrollment and reduced funding.

If the district doesn’t significantly reduce its expenses, it will run out of money in August 2010 and could go into receivership.

Chico State University and Butte College aren’t quite in such dire straits, but both are facing devastating cutbacks at a time when more and more people want to attend college.

In addition to imposing twice-monthly furloughs, Chico State has had to cut $6 million from operating expenses. Fees went up $1,000 this year, and the university will be forced to cut enrollment by 8 percent next year.

As President Paul Zingg points out every chance he gets, since 2000 enrollment in the state universities has increased 29 percent, while their share of state general-fund revenues has declined 27 percent. It is not a sustainable trend, he says.

Butte College is being flooded with applicants, many of them unemployed people trying to retrain, even as it’s been forced to cut classes and programs. Enrollment was up 12 percent in 2008-09 and another 6 percent this year, while the school’s budget has been cut by 15 percent. The campus is seriously overcrowded, with students having to get on long waiting lists for some classes.

Heather Schlaff heads up the local group Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, which showed up in force at public hearings on the Forest Avenue expansion plan.


The big ‘W’

After many years of expecting Walmart’s expansion plans to come before the city, 2009 was the year. In late 2008, the retail giant had dropped its proposal for a supercenter in North Chico, marking a coup for many local Walmart opponents. In April 2009, however, the city announced the public-comment period on the revised environmental-impact report for expanding the Forest Avenue store into a supercenter would be open until June 1. The public debate officially began to roar—again.

In mid-July, the final EIR was presented to the city Planning Department and got a vote of approval. “Staff makes recommendations based on policy. It is consistent with the general-plan policies, zones and development designs and standards,” explained Senior Planner Zach Thomas. Opponents, such as Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, headed by Heather Schlaff, continued their mantra that a supercenter would add blight to the community by closing at least one existing discount grocer, among other retailers.

“Especially in the state of the economy here and elsewhere, this is not a time to be adding something that doesn’t bring anything new to Chico,” Schlaff said. “To deny the project won’t take anything away from what we already have.”

There was so much public opinion on the issue that the Planning Commission’s meeting was expanded not once, but twice, encompassing three full sessions before the panel eventually voted the EIR down. Next stop: Chico City Council Sept. 15.

Once again an overwhelming turnout from community members resulted in a second session—this one a special meeting called specifically to hear public comment on the EIR. After hours of testimony, the council voted once again to postpone the vote.

Sept. 29 turned out to be a fateful night for Walmart. The City Council, having heard its fill of public pros and cons, deliberated for 2 1/2 hours on the expansion plan, which would add a significant grocery component. Finally, with a vote of 5-2, the EIR was shot down. Council members had decided there weren’t enough “overriding considerations,” such as added jobs or green energy, to offset the negative environmental impacts.

“We’re looking at the largest retailer that exists in the universe, and I’m just asking them to get up off the floor and do more,” said Councilman Scott Gruendl. The issue wasn’t quite laid to rest, however, and a special meeting was called in November, at which point Walmart brought forth plans for more mitigation.

In the end, Walmart just didn’t bring enough to the table to offset its negative impacts and its proposal was shot down once and for all—at least for another year, that is.

By the time a judge finally shut down the New Era Mine in October, North Continent Land & Timber had pretty much dug up and sifted through all the earth on this 12-acre site. The question now is, who’s going to reclaim it?

PHOTO Courtesy dry creek coalition

Judge orders mine closed

The saga of the New Era Mine, a gold-mining operation in the foothills east of Butte College, ended in October, when a judge determined that the county had illegally approved it in 2008.

Superior Court Judge Steven Benson’s decision was an almost complete repudiation of the county Board of Supervisors’ 3-2 decision (with Chico-area Supervisors Maureen Kirk and Jane Dolan dissenting) approving the mine.

As the CN&R documented in a series of articles, starting in late 2007 the mine had gone from a small mom-and-pop operation to a major processor of ore-containing black-sand concentrate. In June 2008 the board majority determined its original permit, issued in 1981, remained adequate and that no further environmental review was needed, despite Dolan’s protestations that, as the only supervisor who was on the board at the time, she knew the permit was meant to apply to a much smaller project.

Neighbors, organized as the Dry Creek Coalition, challenged the decision in court, charging that the original permit was inadequate and that the new operation should have a new permit, undergo environmental review and prepare an updated reclamation plan.

The operators of the mine, North Continent Land & Timber, counterattacked, filing a suit charging the coalition had disclosed “trade secrets” by publishing photos of the mine. Early this year a judge ruled North Continent’s suit was purely obstructionist and threw it out.

The case came before Benson on Aug. 31. He issued his decision in mid-October. The county, he determined, had violated state environmental and surface-mining laws by failing to require a new permit and environmental review. He ordered the mine shut down immediately and that North Continent pay the coalition’s attorney fees. Dec. 15, Benson officially chided the Board of Supervisors by ordering them to rescind their approval of the operation within 90 days.

North Continent has the option of seeking a new permit, but so far has not done so. There is little or no activity at the site, and the issue now is how and when the 12 denuded acres of pits is going to be reclaimed.

Dr. Craig Corp of North Valley Pediatric Associates was inundated with calls for the H1N1 vaccination back in October. Demand for the vaccine has waned significantly in the months since. Now, anyone who wants the shot can get one.


Swine flu surfaces

Chico parents no doubt spent a lot of time in 2009 fretting about the emergence of the feared and much-hyped superbug that is the H1N1 virus.

The virus, after all, is much more dangerous for young people.

Swine flu was a big story this year in cities across the nation. Locally, the Butte County Department of Public Health has been all over the emerging pandemic.

As early as April, months before any local detections of the illness, the agency was prepping the public on measures to take to avoid contracting it. This included the typical ways to reduce exposure to the seasonal flu: proper hand washing, getting rest, eating well and drinking plenty of fluids.

At the time, there was talk about school closures in the event of an outbreak. No vaccine was yet available. In May, Public Health said the virus likely had made its way here. The threat remained largely innocuous, though, without any confirmed cases.

Swine flu finally made its arrival known over the summer with a few mild cases. The real scare came this fall, when more and more people came down with the H1N1 as national media outlets began an onslaught of coverage that included worst-case scenarios of healthy teens dying from the virus.

The thought would put any responsible parent in a panic, and a run on the brand-spanking-new H1N1 vaccine was pretty much immediate when the first doses arrived here the second week of October. Local doctors couldn’t keep up with the demand for the inoculation, so Public Health organized a series of school-based clinics throughout the county in November.

Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County’s health officer, said the events were extremely well organized and that he was surprised and a bit disappointed by a lower-than-expected turnout. (A little more than 5,000 children were vaccinated at the clinics.)

Some of that may have been due to fears about the inoculation.

“I wish they were reassured it’s a very safe vaccine,” he said.

Lundberg also noted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in six Americans has had the illness. California’s Department of Health reports that 417 people in the state have died as a result of the swine flu. Lundberg said the statistic includes three deaths in Butte County.

Over the past weeks, the demand for the H1N1 vaccine has waned significantly.

“Now, anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated,” Lundberg said.

Meanwhile, the last virus to make a big splash in the state has remained quiet throughout 2009. If you haven’t heard much on the once-feared West Nile virus, it’s probably because only 104 human cases (two in Butte County) of the mosquito-borne illness were detected in California over the year. Four of them were fatal, though none of the deaths were local.

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$1.5 billion TANC tanks

A proposal by a consortium of public power agencies, including those in Redding, Gridley and Sacramento, to build a huge new transmission line down the Sacramento Valley to bring wind, geothermal and solar power from Lassen County to their cities and the Bay Area ran into a flurry of opposition this year.

By the time the dust settled, the ambitious $1.5 billion project was dead on the ground.

Sponsored by the Transmission Agency of Northern California, or TANC, the project proposed three possible routes through the valley, including one that would have passed across Upper Bidwell Park and through the Oroville and Palermo areas. Residents along all three routes were concerned about the health, esthetic and financial impacts a 500-kilovolt line would have on them.

In some ways TANC was its own worst enemy. It was slow getting out word about the project, did a poor job of notifying landowners along the route, even failed to make sure local elected officials knew about it. When TANC representatives appeared before the Butte County Board of Supervisors on May 19, for example, board members said they learned of the project only the week before, after the period for public comment had ended.

In fact, TANC had to extend the comment period twice after local agencies complained of inadequate notice.

Then there was the matter of source power. There was a Field of Dreams aspect to the project, as if its masterminds believed that, if they built the line, private investors would show up to build the power plants to supply it. As it stood, however, there were no power plants in Lassen County, and only two small ones had been proposed.

The project’s death knell was sounded when the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the largest agency in the 15-member consortium and the project’s major financer, pulled out. By mid-July it was dead.

Delta water heading south in the California Aqueduct. Three years of drought and judicial mandates based on environmental factors have forced large reductions in the amount of water send south, leading to agricultural and job losses in the San Joaquin Valley.

PHOTO Courtesy the california department of water resources

Drought and a water plan

Nothing can point out the weaknesses of a water-delivery system better than three years of drought, which may be why this year legislators finally came up with a comprehensive water plan for California.

The drought, along with court-ordered limitations on water pumped from the Delta, resulted in such dramatic reductions in water allocations for San Joaquin Valley farmers that orchards dried up, land wasn’t planted, and thousands of people, most of them Latino farm workers, had no jobs.

The drought and its resultant reduced water flows was also a factor in the decline of salmon and steelhead populations, though far from the only one. Dams, weirs and other obstacles have long played a role in the fish’s decrease in numbers.

Commercial salmon fishing off the Pacific Coast was banned altogether, and on the Sacramento River it was limited to a short period during the late-fall run, the only one deemed healthy enough to stand being fished.

Other than the water plan, the biggest news on the fish front was the announcement that an agreement had been reached to tear down four dams on the Klamath River, historically the third-largest salmon fishery on the West Coast. If successful, it will be the largest dam decommissioning and removal in American history. The dams won’t be removed for more than a decade, and a number of hurdles remain, but PacifiCorp, the power company that owns them, has agreed to their removal in principle.

At this point the biggest issue is who’s going to pay for it. And that’s what connects the fate of the Klamath, which is not part of California’s water system, to the water plan approved Nov. 4.

The plan manages both to please and upset most parties involved in the always-fractious dispute over what to do with water, the state’s lifeblood. Environmentalists are happy it contains a number of habitat safeguards and mandatory conservation goals and calls for controls over groundwater use, but they’re nervous that it also leaves the way open to construction of two new reservoirs (including one in the Sites valley, in Colusa County) and a peripheral canal around the Delta. They and Delta residents worry the latter would result is a diminishment of flow through the estuary that would make it even less healthy than it is.

Farmers worry that groundwater controls will limit access to what has been an essentially bottomless—albeit expensive—supply; urban water users worry about how they’re going to meet the conservation goals; and Northern Californians are concerned that thirsty Southern Californians and farmers are going to take “their” water.

But the biggest problem with the plan may be paying for it. It calls for an $11 billion bond measure on the November 2010 ballot to pay for all its conveyance improvements, but it also includes a number of pet projects—some $2 billion worth—that have little to do with delivering water, including $250 million to pay for tearing down the Klamath dams.

Whether recession-battered Californians will vote to take on more debt, when debt service is expected to reach 10 percent of the state’s expenses by 2014 and California faces what seems an intractable annual shortfall, is anybody’s guess.

The best news may be that a series of early December storms dumped a lot of rain and snow on the state, suggesting that the three-year drought pattern finally had broken.

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Violence spooks Chicoans

A number of bizarre events, including the recent home-invasion robbery at a Chico State administrator’s residence in the über-posh suburban Canyon Oaks community, have kept crime in the spotlight as we head into the new year.

Without a doubt, though, the most memorable—and disturbing—crimes this year were a trio of shooting deaths in three week’s time early last summer. Two of those crimes remain unsolved.

Investigators have little to go on to find the murderer of Ricardo Lara, a 28-year-old Butte College student and father who had a child on the way. The night of Lara’s death, he attended a party at the unrecognized fraternity Delta Psi Delta in the south campus area. He stuck around and was hanging out in front of the house in the wee hours of the morning when a man ran up from behind and shot him.

Investigators think the shooting was gang-related, but witnesses, as is common in these cases, haven’t helped much with leads.

Octavio Maria Nieves’ death is even more mysterious. It appears the murder took place as the Chico man, a mechanic, was simply minding his own business in his Nord Avenue home—near Safeway—where he was well known by neighbors. He was found shot to death on his living-room couch.

It’s been a full six months since the slayings, but Chico police Sgt. Rob Merrifield says the detectives do not consider the murders “cold cases.” Investigators are still working on solving the crimes. Nevertheless, the killings bring the total number of unsolved murders to seven in seven years.

Until 2002, the Chico Police Department had no unsolved homicides.

Three murders in three weeks rightfully spooked many Chico residents, but as Police Chief Mike Maloney has pointed out, having three murders in a single year isn’t out of the ordinary. It’s about average, actually.

Some of the more high-profile crimes leading up to the new year include a trio of stabbings, two of which appear to be cases of jealousy. Matitzahl Wolf Cook-Sanchez, 22, is facing attempted murder and a variety of other charges for allegedly slashing a woman, reportedly his ex-girlfriend, and stabbing a man repeatedly in the abdomen, to the point that parts of his intestines were exposed. James Cole Rhodes, 26, is accused of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and chasing down and stabbing a man in the back.

“In both cases, the victims were very lucky to survive,” Merrifield said.

Long one of Chico Mall’s anchor stores, Gottschalks went away after the department-store chain went bankrupt.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Recession stress

Butte County is feeling it. According to The Associated Press’ Economic Stress Index—which bases the economic-stress scenarios of counties on the three factors of unemployment, bankruptcy filings and home foreclosures—Butte County is at a level of 15.33 (out of 100), which is about 50 percent more stressed than we were one year ago, when we were at 10.3. Since then, our bankruptcy filings have risen from just less than one percent (0.87) to 1.28 percent, our foreclosures have risen nearly half again as much to a rate of 1.65 percent, and the county’s unemployment rate has gone up 4.3 percentage points to a whopping 12.8 percent (which is in line with California’s rate of 12.2 and just above the national average of 10 percent).

The nervousness locals were feeling in 2008 as IRAs shrank and the foreclosure rates rose in the wake of the tumbling stock and housing markets across the country proved to be well-founded. In 2009, more and more signs of the collapse were everywhere. Joining the increasing number of “For Sale” signs in front yards, were signs reading “Store Closing,” as a depressing number of Chico’s large stores went under—Gottschalks, Linens ’N Things, Circuit City, McMahan’s Furniture—with many being gutted and sold off on the way down.

Plus, as locals responded to the economic reality by spending less, just as many small businesses, mostly restaurants, turned out the lights as well—Artifax, The Black Crow, Woodreaux Cajun & BBQ, Grilla Bites inside In Motion Fitness, King’s Catch, two Starbucks branches and Taco Bell, among others.

The continued attrition of university students who would have spent money in our area and the probable reduction of workers at some of Chico’s largest employers (Chico State, CUSD), coupled with a state budget deficit that will be just as bad in 2010-11, does not bode well for our unemployment numbers, the health of our local economy or ultimately our overall level of economic stress. Unfortunately, chances are we’ll be reading about the flailing economy as one of next year’s top stories as well.

After much debate, the Chico City Council decided to allow the long course to remain in Upper Bidwell Park.


Disc golf gets new life

After a lengthy debate that dragged on for years, 2009 seemed to signal the calm after the storm. At issue were the two disc-golf courses in Upper Bidwell Park built about two decades ago. Opponents argued the activity was eroding the natural habitat; proponents said they cherished the park and if they were able to keep it up, they would. (A weird set of circumstances regarding money allocated to park maintenance years ago ended in the money’s going toward a master management plan instead, leaving no funding for cleanup.)

Things started to really heat up in 2008, with both the long and short courses being shut down by the City Council. Then, with thousands in support of disc golf, nearly 6,000 signatures were gathered to put the issue up for a public vote.

That turned out to be unnecessary, however. With the new year came new life for the disc-golf courses. In February, the City Council voted unanimously to allow the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission to choose a site for the short course—by April 21. At that meeting, the commission voted to move the short course to Caper Acres. Then, almost a month later, the City Council reversed that vote, deciding instead to leave the course where it’s been the past 20 years.

There are some conditions, of course, and the short course was approved for that space only for a period of five years, at which time a new location should be found. But it’s safe to say disc-golfers were overjoyed this past May, as they were allowed to continue their pastime in the pristine environs of Upper Bidwell Park.

Most recently, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission voted Dec. 28 to allocate $52,000 to reconstruction of the long course, located along Highway 32. In the meantime, the commission would close the short course for two years while a permanent location was sought. The decision is not final until the City Council weighs in, likely sometime in early 2010.