The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

July 30, 2010
Recession has downsized American expectations for future

A new survey by Pew Research paints a sobering picture of the psychological impact on American families of the economic downturn.recesion1.JPG

"The Great Recession has led to a downsizing of Americans' expectations about their retirements and their children's future; a new frugality in their spending and borrowing habits; and a concern that it could take several years, at a minimum, for their house values and family finances to recover," the report noted.

Perhaps most sobering, the report found that American adults have become increasingly concerned that their children will experience a lower standard of living than they have enjoyed.

-Charles Piller

July 30, 2010
Scant media coverage of African Americans during Obama term

The nation's first African American president does not seem to have caused a spike in media coverage of African Americans in the media, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

The biggest news story pertaining directly to African Americans during President Obama's term so far has been the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by a white police officer. This eclipsed even the number of stories discussing the "race angle" with regard to Obama's presidency, the report noted.AA coverage.JPG

"The press coverage that did emerge tended to be a reaction to events involving black newsmakers rather than to issues relating to African Americans more generally," the report concluded. "The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the Obama presidency, the death of Michael Jackson and the attempted Northwest Airlines terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab accounted for nearly half (46.4%) of all coverage that had a substantial mention of African Americans during this time period."

-Charles Piller

July 29, 2010
Recycling: Who's responsible?

Last week, the city of Roseville became the 100th California entity to adopt a resolution ewaste photo.jpgcalling on manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling the products they sell; this week, the Placer County Board of Supervisors became the 101st.

Historically, the job of recycling has been largely left to government, meaning consumers and taxpayers pay the bill. Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, wants to change that.

"Government's role in recycling should be limited to goal setting, establishing transparency, oversight and enforcement," said Sanborn, who is calling for the passage of statewide "product stewardship" laws for a range of hard-to-recycle items, from batteries to carpet - and for reform of the state's pioneering, five-year-old e-waste recycling program.

Earlier this month, The Bee reported that the California's e-waste program is plagued by faulty and fraudulent claims and ineffective law enforcement. Since its launch, none of the other 22 states that have followed California have tackled e-waste recycling with a government program; instead they have made manufacturers responsible.

Sanborn plans to convene a workshop later this year in Berkeley to chart possible changes to California's government-run e-waste program. "Everybody else is going producer responsibility," she said. "We are now the outlier."

"This needs to be a very public discussion of the role of government versus the role of the private sector," she said. "We need the primary responsibility to be back on the manufacturers. Right now, they have literally no skin in the game. They just privatize the profit and socialize the cost."

More information about the California Product Stewardship Council can be found at its website at: http://www.calpsc.org/

Bee photo by Tom Knudson.

July 29, 2010
More international students study in Golden State

The volume of international students getting visas to come to California colleges has jumped almost 50 percent during the past four years, according to new data from the Department of Homeland Security.

During 2005, about 101,000 international students received F1 visas to study in California; last year, that figure jumped to 147,000.

Some of the increase is due to state colleges relying on international students, who pay high tuition, to subsidize the education of domestic students. The trend also has a lot to do with the good reputation of California colleges.

These are temporary students visas; they don't allow a student to live here permanently or work off campus.

The map below shows 2009 student visas granted per 10,000 residents in each state: ...

July 28, 2010
Most city, county leaders earn $200,000+ each year

Recent reports showing the city manager for the tiny southern California town of Bell earning almost $800,000 a year caused a public uproar. Local leaders in Sacramento don't make anywhere near that, but aren't exactly hurting either.

This chart shows the base salaries of nearly every city manager and county executive in the Sacramento region, based on a Bee survey.




City manager/county executive base salaries, June 2010









There's a little more to the story, though. Some managers at the region's smaller cities are making almost as much -- or more -- than managers responsible for thousands of public employees.

This chart, ordered the same as the one above for comparison purposes, shows dollars earned by city managers/county executives per 10,000 residents in their jurisdiction.




City manager/county executive base salaries per 10,000 residents, June 2010










July 28, 2010
Fewer foreign IT professionals coming to California

The number of skilled, temporary foreign worker visas issued for jobs in California has plummeted since the start of the recession, according to new data from the Department of Homeland Security.

H1B visas are a hot topic in California. A lot of high-tech companies use them to fill positions, saying there's not enough available American help to do the job. They've long infuriated local IT professionals having trouble finding work.

But since 2007, the number of H1B visas issued for work in California has fallen 30 percent. In 2009, there were about 54,000 such visas issued, compared to 76,000 during 2007.

Still, California drew more temporary specialty foreign workers during 2009 than most other states, as the map below shows. The District of Columbia has the highest per capita rate of these visas; Montana has the lowest.

July 28, 2010
Five horses dead in San Joaquin County. Did heat kill them?

Sweltering heat in the Central Valley has become a potential criminal matter in San Joaquin County. The district attorney's office in Stockton is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against the owner of five horses suspected of dying of thirst in a pasture near Tracy.

Deputy Les Garcia of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department would not disclose the name of the owner, whose horses were reported down July 15 by a passing motorist.

Temperatures were into the 90s when the animals died, and investigators were examining the possibility they had been without water for several days. Another two horses suffering from possible dehydration are being treated, Garcia said.

Animal cruelty laws differ widely from state to state, according to a 2006 study by the American Prosecutors Research Institute. The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that most reported cases of animal cruelty involve failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter or veterinary care - and that offenders generally are given education instead of prison terms.

"However, cases involving large numbers of animals or which cause death or serious debilitation
of animals may be charged as serious misdemeanor or even felony offenses," the researchers found.

In California, a person accused of depriving animals of water or food can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony, and faces possible prison time and a fine of up to $20,000. San Joaquin County Deputy DA Robert Himelblau said the office is assembling reports and will decide in the next few weeks whether to file charges.

-- Marjie Lundstrom

July 27, 2010
Hate crimes declined in state in 2009, AG says

Reported hate crimes in California dropped more than 20 percent last year, the AG's office says.

"While the drop in these crimes is encouraging," Attorney General Jerry Brown said in a statement last week, "hate has certainly not been banished from California. The sheer total of incidents motivated by hate is a reminder of how much harder we need to work to overcome prejudice, bigotry and ignorance."

Hate crimes include those motivated by the victim's race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or physical or mental disability.

Hate crimes dropped from 1,397 cases in 2008 to 1,100 last year. Hate crimes have declined by half since 2001, dropping from 2,261 cases.

There was a decline in anti-black crime (17.7 percent), anti-Jewish crime (13 percent) and anti-gay crime (22.1 percent) - categories accounting for about 60 percent of the state's hate crimes. Though violent offenses accounted for 63.5 percent of all hate crimes in 2009, last year marked the largest year-over-year decline in violent hate crimes (down 22.8 percent) this decade.

A total of 479 hate crime cases were referred to prosecutors in 2009. Of those, 363 criminal cases were filed, 283 as hate crimes. Of the 257 hate crime cases with dispositions in 2009, there were 223 convictions - 131 hate crime convictions and 92 other convictions.

- Stephen Magagnini

July 27, 2010
Locals defend SHRA's spending on four-plexes

Nice work, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

That was essentially the finding of a special committee the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission convened to review an inspector general's report alleging SHRA had misused millions in federal funds for redeveloping neighborhoods hit by the foreclosure crisis.

The HUD's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of the Inspector General released a scathing report questioning SHRA's use of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to rehab four-plexes at Norcade Circle near Folsom Boulevard and Highway 50, and at Lerwick Road near Watt Avenue and Auburn Boulevard. The IG found the $500,000 SHRA budgeted per four-plex to be exorbitant.

The panel - made up of members appointed by the City Council and Board of Supervisors - heaped praise on agency staff last week and explained that much of the high cost is due to sensible design features.

"All of the air conditioning units were roof mounted as opposed to ground level," commissioner Cyril Shah said. Several others also used that example for why the rehabs cost $500,000 per property as opposed to the $100,000 per property the IG's office said would have been more reasonable.

Commissioners said they feel good about the project and were hopeful the regional HUD office would, too. In mid-September, HUD will issue a response to the IG's report. The IG has recommended SHRA be forced to repay more than $1 million in federal funds and re-budget more than $3.8 million currently budgeted for the Norcade Circle and Lerwick Road properties.

_ Robert Lewis


 

July 26, 2010
Severe local water shortages on the way due to global warming

Sacramento County is one of four in California and just 29 nationwide that face likely, extreme water shortages by 2050 -- even if global warming were to mysteriously disappear -- according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

The report found that California and 13 other states face severe shortages under expected global-warming scenarios. Nationwide, more than 1,100 counties -- one in three -- were projected to face water shortages due to global warming.

The research was conducted for the environmental group by Tetra Tech Inc., a Pasadena-based research and engineering firm, which factored in increasing demand from population and economic growth.

"Water shortages can strangle economic development and agricultural production," said Dan Lashof, an official with the environmental group. "Cities and states will bear real and significant costs if Congress fails to take the steps necessary to slow down and reverse the warming trend." Given that climate-change legislation remains stalled in a polarized Congress, water conservation would seem a more fruitful response, but hardly an easy one.

Notwithstanding the end of the three-year drought, the State Water Resources Control Board recently recommended that to sustain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (a pleasant Delta day pictured here) as a healthy ecosystem, water drawn from it should roughly be cut in half. Water providers consider such cuts impractical in the extreme, given the lack of ready alternative sources.MC_ CSP_BRANNAN.04.JPG

Many urban areas, including the City of Sacramento -- among a handful of cities that does not yet fully meter its customers -- have enacted tougher conservation rules in recent years.

The city has had difficulty conserving on its own properties, due to a preponderance of grass and other thirsty landscaping combined with antiquated sprinklers that can be costly to upgrade.

But under a law enacted last year, the state mandated a 20 percent reduction in water consumption for urban areas by 2020. Agricultural water users will have their usage measured by July 2012, and will pay for water based partly on the quantity used.

- Charles Piller

July 26, 2010
Kids most vulnerable in E. Coli outbreaks

PK_LETTUCE 0128.JPGIf history is any lesson, the state's latest round of contaminated food products will hit one population the hardest: Kids under 5.

A study by the California Department of Public Health shows that the rate of E. coli infection cases in 2008 was at least 12 times higher in children ages 1 to 4 than in adults 25 and 54.The study, which analyzed Escherichia coli outbreaks between 2001 and 2008, found that children in that age group were consistently more susceptible to the bacteria.

The rate of E. coli infection in young children averaged about 3.3 cases per 100,000 population in the eight-year span, compared with an average rate of only about 0.2 cases in adults 25 to 54, the data shows. Among all adults, the rate of infection was higher in those over 65.

Most people infected with E. coli develop diarrhea and abdominal cramps after swallowing the organism, but serious complications - including a form of kidney failure -- are most common in children under 5 and the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health department has not announced any serious illnesses or deaths in California from the contaminated romaine lettuce that was recalled earlier this month. The product was packaged by Fresh Express and distributed to retailers in 19 states.

Here are links to a state health fact sheet on E. Coli and the federal CDC site where outbreaks are announced and analyzed.

- Marjie Lundstrom

July 23, 2010
Low-cost genetic testing kits offer dubious results

Looking for answers about your risk for ailments commonly linked to heredity? Don't bother with direct-to-consumer test kits, advises a report from United States Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress. (Illustration by John Alvin, The Fresno Bee.)20070829_Biomed_research.jpg

The agency recently tested kits from four companies, priced at $299 to $999 per test. The agency received "test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use." For one set of identical samples, different test kits showed "below-average, average, and above-average risk for prostate cancer and hypertension."

The agency also cited "egregious" deception in how the kits were marketed, such as touting the ability to "repair damaged DNA" or cure disease -- capabilities that no such testing kids can provide. The agency did not name the products tested.

-Charles Piller


July 22, 2010
ACLU: authorities continue spying on political groups

Local, state and national law enforcement agencies continue to spy on, harrass and infiltrate law-abiding citizen groups who organize, advocate and protest. That's the assertion of the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent report, Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity. The ACLU based its claim on a study of FOIA requests and news accounts of purported surveillance and harassment by police and other authorities in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The report includes a state-by-state compilation of such incidents. There are 22 references for California. These include: infiltration of an Islamic Center in Irvine by the FBI; monitoring of a Mother's Day peace protest by the California National Guard; infiltration of a labor union demonstration by the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department; and videotaping of protesters at a 2003 peace rally by Sacramento Police.

July 22, 2010
Report hits federal subsidies that harm the environment

A coalition of environmental and consumer groups issued a new report detailing $200 billion in federal subsidies, to be distributed over the next five years, that allegedly harm the environment. The coalition, including Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, cited more than $31 billion in giveaways to the gas and oil industry, including $9 billion for intangible drilling costs.

(AP photo of some of the more tangible costs of the BP spill in the gulf, below.)Gulf Oil Spill.jpg

Coal "gasification" will tap $8 billion in taxpayer help, and $28 billion will go to propping up commodity crops such as corn for ethanol -- regarded by some environmentalists as a bigger contributor to global warning than gasoline. More than $36 billion more will go to an ethanol excise tax credit, according to the report.

The groups called for steep cuts in what they termed wasteful benefits to environmentally harmful industries and projects.

-Charles Piller

July 22, 2010
Is federal cattle grazing too cheap?

cattle.jpgEnvironmentalists have sent a letter to the Obama administration suggesting how the U.S. Forest Service can begin to meet a presidential directive to cut their budget by 5 percent: stop subsidized livestock grazing.

The agency charges just $1.35 cents a month for each cow and calf that graze on its lands, including in the Sierra Nevada. In 2005, the U.S. GAO found the Forest Service loses $69.5 million nationally on its grazing program.

"The fee has failed to keep pace with inflation, failed to cover the administrative costs of operating the program and incentivizes destructive grazing practices on public land," wrote seven environmentalists, including Ara Marderosian, executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper in Kernville.

Earlier this year, The Sacramento Bee reported on scientific research of retired UC Davis emergency room director Robert Derlet, who has documented serious water pollution in high Sierra meadows. His photo (above) shows cattle grazing just outside the Hoover Wilderness Area on Forest Service land in the eastern Sierra.

Overall, 15,045 sheep and 35,721 cattle grazed on national forests in the Sierra Nevada last year, according to the Forest Service. Total grazing fees came to $168,942;about $3.33 cents per animal, less than the cost of a latte.

The environmentalists' letter also targets the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

July 21, 2010
Today's wars costlier than all other U.S. conflicts except WWII

Since 9/11, military outlays beyond the normal expenditures of maintaining a standing military capacity have topped $1.1 trillion -- an impressive price tag for a budget-strapped nation -- according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Corrected for inflation, the agency estimated the price of the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars as higher than any other conflict in U.S. history, except World War II, which cost more than $4 trillion in today's dollars. (An explosion in Kandahar, Afghanistan pictured here. AP photo by Allauddin Khan.)Afghanistan.jpg

The report contains a fascinating chart that compares every military conflict in the nation's history, including American Revolution ($2.4 billion), the Vietnam War ($784 billion) and World War I ($334 billion).

The author, defense specialist Stephen Daggett, warns that such comparisons can't be made with the same precision the numbers might suggest. That's in part because different historical eras experienced different demands for ever-more costly war-fighting technologies. And as a percentage of the nation's GDP, today's war costs are far lower than nearly all prior wars. Still, as a rough gauge, the new study shows that the current wars already rank among the costliest in history.

Other analysts, such as Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, have calculated vastly higher costs when including such items as support for soldiers who return from recent wars with grave medical or psychological problems.

-Charles Piller

July 20, 2010
Fresh data on the well-being of seniors

elderly.JPGAs the demographic bulge of baby boomers moves toward retirement, there's increasing interest in the physical, emotional and economic condition of seniors as they age. To help academics and public and private service providers understand the challenges ahead, a coalition of federal agencies published a new compendium of statistics on people aged 65 and up. Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well-Being contains the latest data on 37 measures that best describe the status of seniors today. The volume is divided into five sections: population, economics, health status, health risks and behaviors, and health care. Some highlights:

The older population is projected to grow from 35 million in 2000 to 72 million in 2030, with their portion of the total population increasing from 13 to 20 percent.

The percentage of seniors (65+) with "functional limitations" (e.g., inability to walk a few blocks or lift a moderate weight) fell from 49 to 42 percent between 1992 and 2007.

Life expectancy among U.S. seniors has increased but has trailed behind other industrialized countries.

Obesity among seniors has increased 22 to 32 percent between 1988 and 2008.

Health care costs for seniors, adjusted for inflation, grew significantly from $9,224 in 1992 to $15,081 in 2006.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mavis Spotts raises her arms during exercise at the Sutter Respite and Recreation program held at the Twelve Bridges Library, July 15, 2010. Sacramento Bee / Randy Pench.

July 20, 2010
California borrowing heavily from feds to backfill unemployment

There are times when you just don't want to be on top and this is one of them.

On this nifty map of the United States created by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism operation, California has borrowed more than any other state to support its unemployment compensation debt.

In all, ProPublica reports, "twenty-six states have run out of money and been forced to borrow from the federal government." California easily beats the other 25, with sheer size and soaring unemployment pushing the debt to more than $7.5 billion. The next highest is Michigan, with $3.8 billion.

Of course Michigan is a quarter the size of California, so in a way they have us beat. But that's not a win to brag about.

July 20, 2010
Overworked, understaffed Assessors slow to finish tax rolls

If it seems like you're finding out the new assessed value of your home later than usual, you're not alone.

Statewide 29 county assessors have asked the state Board of Equalization for an extension on closing the property tax rolls for 2010-11. That's the second most extensions in the past decade.

The most?

Last year 31 assessors needed more time.

The number of counties seeking extensions varies from year to year. Here are extensions by year:

2000: 28

2001: 20

2002: 20

2003: 18

2004: 24

2005: 18

2006: 16

2007: 22

2008:25

2009: 31

2010: 29

Some counties always seem to need a bit more time after the July 1 deadline. Butte, Madera, Orange and Tehama counties have needed extensions every year in this millennium, according to information from the BOE.

The high number of delays the past two years is largely the result of increased workloads combined budget cuts most counties have made, said Ron Thomsen, president of the California Assessors' Association and Alameda County's assessor.

Assessors are overworked trying to lower assessed values for homeowners who qualify in the down economy, Thomsen said. And they often have fewer staff to handle the work, he added.

Tax rolls statewide are falling for most counties. The Bee reported today that most homeowners will see their assessed value dip a bit this year. Bills come out in October.

July 20, 2010
Reusable shopping bags: Spreading germs or spreading fear?

The Yuck Factor has entered California's contentious shopping-bag debate.

As the state moves closer to passing a ban on single-use plastic bags, researchers at Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona have unveiled a wrinkle in the reusable shopping bag movement.

In a new study, the researchers found that environmentally conscious shoppers almost never wash those reusable cloth bags, exposing their food purchases and themselves to bacteria.

The researchers, who randomly collected reusable bags from shoppers in California and Arizona, found large numbers of bacteria in almost all the bags, and coliform in half. When meat juices were added to the bags and stored in vehicle trunks for two hours, bacteria increased almost 10-fold.

"These results indicate that reusable bags can play a significant role in the cross contamination of foods if not properly washed on a regular basis," the authors concluded. "It is recommended that the public needs to be educated about the proper care of reusable bags by printed instructions on the bags or through public service announcements."

Supporters of the plastic-bag ban, set to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee, accused the American Chemistry Council -- which sponsored the study -- of using a scare tactic to scuttle the measure. If AB 1998 passes, California would be the first in the nation to ban grocery, liquor and drug stores from providing free paper or plastic bags.

July 19, 2010
Updated: Interactive: California's whooping cough outbreak

The number of whooping cough cases reported in California this year has jumped sharply from previous years, largely because of inconsistent vaccination. The outbreak is widespread, but has been particularly strong in the Central Valley and Marin County.

"We are facing what could be the worst year for pertussis that this state has seen in more than 50 years," said CDPH Chief of the Center for Infectious Disease Dr. Gilberto Chávezon Monday. "We are urging health providers to broaden their use of the pertussis vaccine and we are urging Californians to take the simple step of getting vaccinated to prevent pertussis."

The map below has the breakout for January 2010 through June 2010.













Source: California Department of Public Health.

July 19, 2010
American Eagle leads airlines in involuntary passenger bumps

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics collects information on "passengers denied confirmed space". This includes airline-level data on the number of travelers bumped voluntarily and involuntarily. Recently, BTS released 2009 Q4 figures for 19 airlines. In absolute terms Southwest for and away lead the industry in involuntary bumps: a total of 13,113 in 2009. US Airways and Delta Air Lines followed with 7,297 and 6,774, respectively. But considered in terms of total boardings, American Eagle was number one in passenger bumps per 100,000 boardings.

Carrier Boadings Involuntary Bumps Bumps per 100,000 boardings
American Eagle 15,485,727 5,828 37.6
Comair 6,131,756 1,610 26.3
Atlantic Southeast 12,952,513 2,937 22.7
Alaska Airlines 14,692,489 2,980 20.3
ExpressJet 12,394,332 2,386 19.3
Frontier Airlines 9,419,052 1,769 18.8
Continental Airlines 37,524,185 5,893 15.7
Mesa Airlines 10,984,365 1,618 14.7
US Airways 51,741,773 7,297 14.1
United Air Lines 50,971,409 6,645 13.0
Southwest Airlines 101,770,164 13,113 12.9
Pinnacle Airlines 10,509,282 1,223 11.6
Delta Air Lines 60,431,943 6,774 11.2
SkyWest Airlines 20,721,633 2,134 10.3
Northwest Airlines 35,599,219 2,123 6.0
American Airlines 76,245,981 4,304 5.6
AirTran Airways 23,997,810 569 2.4
Hawaiian Airlines 8,344,628 22 0.3
JetBlue Airways 22,267,349 9 0.0
 

July 19, 2010
Sacramento International - passenger traffic sags

Amid the ongoing financial malaise -- in the airline industry and in the broader economy -- Sacramento International Airport traffic continues to decline, a trend since 2008. For the 12 months ending in April, 4.4 million passengers arrived here, and nearly the same number departed, both figures down more than 6 percent from the prior year, according to data from the U.S. Research and Innovative Technology Administration.
JV SACINT 242.JPG
(Bee photo by Jose Luis
Villegas shows the new terminal under construction in the spring.)

By comparison, traffic at San Francisco International increased by about 6 percent, but at Oakland International, traffic fell by more than 8 percent. Sacramento International ranks 38th and 39th, respectively, among passenger arrivals and departures among 825 U.S. airports.

-Charles Piller


July 16, 2010
New data: California lags behind nation in education spending

About 25 percent of local and state government spending in California went toward education during 2008 -- a lower rate than all states except New York and Alaska, according to new census figures. Virginia and Vermont lead the nation. Important note: A map of per pupil spending would differ markedly from this map, mostly because some states have lean governments while others provide more services.












Source: U.S. Census Bureau

July 16, 2010
Racial bias in California prison lockdowns?

The nonprofit Prison Law Office, an advocacy group behind several influential lawsuits that have imposed new oversight and medical-care programs in California's prisons released a letter
on Thursday that accused the state of racial discrimination in lockdowns -- periods during which prisoners are confined to cells nearly 24 hours a day.

The prisons commonly use lockdowns to control inmates after riots or less-severe altercations. Some of those disturbances involve conflicts between inmates of the same racial group, or conflicts between different racial groups.PK_PRISONS 0201.jpg (Bee photo by Paul Kitagaki, Jr.)

The Prison Law Office studied the 379 lockdowns (which lasted, on average, 109 days) during the first half of last year. It "found troubling evidence of racial discrimination in more than 100" lockdowns occurring in 25 of the system's 33 prisons. Dozens of prisoners also have told The Bee that they view many lockdowns as discriminatory.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit, said in a letter to corrections Secretary Matthew Cate that prisons had improperly penalized entire racial groups rather than determining the risks posed by individual inmates.

-Charles Piller

July 15, 2010
Report: not enough primary care physicians in parts of state

doc.JPGThe number of physicians in California has grown faster than the population since 1998. But with baby boomers aging, health reform opening insurance to more people and many doctors approaching retirement, the state may face a shortage of doctors in the future -- particularly a shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs) in certain parts of the state and among certain population groups. That's the conclusion of California Physican Facts and Figures, a new report by the California HealthCare Foundation.

Even now, most areas of Califoria barely meet national standards for primary doctors per 100,000 population, says the CHCF. Only the greater Bay Area, Orange County and the Sacramento region have the recommended supply of PCPs. In addition, the ethnic makeup of California physicians doesn't mirror the state's diversity. The biggest disparity is among Latinos, who comprise 40 percent of the population, but only five percent of doctors.

Hat tip: Healthy Cal

PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Miguel Lizarraga looks at the knee of patient Traci Lucia at the Oak Park Primary Care Center. The Sacramento Bee / Anne Chadwick Williams.

July 15, 2010
Stimulus watchdog dings Monterey Agency's use of funds

A workforce investment board charged with providing job training to laid-off workers used stimulus funding to subsidize the placement of workers at the companies that had just fired them, the state's stimulus watchdog wrote Thursday.

The Monterey County Workforce Investment Board created "the appearance of revolving-door employment" by using money meant to train workers to place them back in their old jobs or jobs so similar they needed no additional training to perform them.recovery.bmp

The actions made it "seem that (the board) was back-filling vacant jobs with the same employees who originally occupied the vacancies," wrote Laura Chick, inspector general for California stimulus spending.

Also, the board placed two well-qualified electricians in jobs where they were meant to learn how to be electricians, Chick found The manager of the company that got them said they needed no training, and was happy for the cheap help.

The Workforce Investment Board received a total of $4.7 million in stimulus funds under the federal Workforce Investment Act.

The board, in its official response to Chick, said her office failed to acknowledge the urgency -- and pressure -- created by massive layoffs during the recession. They also noted that, since newer workers are laid off most often, some of the workers who went back to their old jobs -- or ones like them -- were so inexperienced they needed more training.

July 15, 2010
Annoying airline fees add up - $3 billion annually

Airlines Fees.jpgYou're not just imagining it. Those nearly-ubiquitous, highly irritating fees charged by airlines for everything from blankets and beverages to checked baggage have become a huge profit center for the industry. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, reported recently that fees small and large added up to a whopping $3 billion in revenues for U.S. airlines last year. (At right, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; photo by Associated Press.)

Among the highest fees found by the Agency: $35 for the first checked bag on Allegiant, $100 for sending an unaccompanied minor on several airlines, $175 for taking your pet in the cabin on Hawaiian, $12 for a blanket and pillow on Virgin America, and a whopping $14 for a some cocktails on Hawaiian. The report did not indicate if the cocktail included a little umbrella, or if that costs extra.

The agency recommended better and more complete disclosure of fees by airlines. Bon Voyage.

-Charles Piller

July 15, 2010
During recession, local companies' stock underperformed market average

Anyone who purchased a piece of the Sacramento economy by buying stock in a large local company probably took a big hit during the last two years.

Of the region's five largest publicly-traded companies, four watched their stock price drop by more than 60 percent since December 2007, the start of the recession. By comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined about 18 percent during that period.

Folsom-based Waste Connections bucked the trend. Pacific Ethanol, the Sacramento-based alternative fuel broker, has fallen the most, watching its price drop more than 90 percent in 30 months.

July 14, 2010
Chart: Schwarzenegger's approval rating over the years

At one time, two of every three Californians approved of the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing his job. No longer:

Percent of registered voters approving Schwarzenegger's job performance, 2004-2010



Source: Field Poll

July 14, 2010
Women now running more local farms

Women are in charge of a growing number of farms in the Sacramento region, according to the latest federal statistics.

The new agricultural census shows the number of local farms with a woman as the primary operator rose 8 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Women now run about one of every four farms in the Sacramento region. Their farms, however, tend to be smaller -- about half the acreage, on average, as farms with men running the show.

July 14, 2010
Dropping home sales: bad local bank loans partly to blame

The Bee's coverage about new home sales continuing to fall off the cliff blames, in part, the end of a special tax credit. This chart from federal regulators gives a sobering picture of another reason: bad loans at small community banks. Local banks are often the best lenders for home buyers and small businesses, but delinquencies are sapping their available capital (chart below):small bank nonaccruals.JPG












The rate of bad loans is three times what it was just after the recession of 2001-2002. But things are far worse in the Pacific region, including California, where nearly 5 percent of small bank assets have gone bad (chart below):

small bank nonaccruals - pacific.JPG
-Charles Piller
July 14, 2010
California is second in closing the wage gap

The wage gap between men and women has been steadily closing over the years, according to a new report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1979 (the first year such data was gathered) women on average earned 62 percent as much as men. In 2009 full-time working women earned a median income of $627 per week compared with $819 per week earned by male counterparts -- a gap of 80.2 percent. In general pay disparity is less acute among younger and professional/managerial workers.

The smart foks at the New York Times Economix blog have taken 2009 state-level figures from the BLS and prepared an interactive map showing the wage gap across the United States (reproduced below). The District of Columbia had the narrowest gap (96.5 percent), followed by California (88.7 percent).

July 13, 2010
Computer software scams target whatever it hot in the news

It's an Internet scam that really sucks. At least that's how computer security officials describe a new online threat tied to the latest "Twilight" vampire movie.

It's what's known as "headline malware" - malicious computer software that pounces on current hot topics circulating on Internet search engines, whether it's World Cup matches, Michael Jackson's death or scandalous celebrity news.

"There's no end to the number of scams," said Stephanie Edwards,of PC Tools, a computer security software company. She called the recent Twilight scam "vampire bytes."

"When you go online to search for the latest gossip of your vampire heartthrob, underneath that search is a very nasty fake anti-virus threat that tells you to download a fake fix - and pay for it, no less," said Edwards.

Headline malware is typically a ruse to infect your computer, steal passwords or dupe you into buying phony anti-virus software. Sometimes it infects Facebook accounts, using malicious software known as "koobface" that sends out phony messages to your Facebook friends.

David Marcus, director of security and research for McAfee, said the massively popular appeal of the "Twilight" movie makes it "a very attractive lure" that attracts cybercriminals.

He advises being cautious of any unsolicited e-mails, such as invitations to download movie clips or vote for your favorite Twilight actor.

Make sure your computer's security software is updated and scans daily for viruses, he said.

- Claudia Buck

July 13, 2010
Natomas property owners undercharged $1.3 million

More than 1,000 properties in North Natomas are about to get tax bills from the city because they were undercharged for two years.

From 2007 to 2009, businesses and homeowners were undercharged special taxes earmarked to pay off bonds issued to help construct drainage facilities in the area. The total underpayment: $1.3 million.

A total of 1,075 property owners were undercharged, including a business that owes roughly $215,000.

Budget officials recently discovered the underpayments and sent out bills Friday. Most home and property owners were charged the wrong rates in fiscal years 2007-08 and 2008-09, officials said, but the error was fixed in time for the current fiscal year.

It won't be all bad news as the bills hit: 107 property owners actually overpaid.

The money will be used to pay back the debt secured to pay for the drainage facilities in what is called a Mello-Roos bond district. Community Facilities District No. 4 is most of the area north of Del Paso Road and east of Interstate 5.

The city will offer help to those who owe more than $400 and are not delinquent with their payments. One option will be to pay off the taxes over two years without interest or penalties.

In an e-mail, city spokeswoman Amy Williams said staff will "run audits and fix problems as they arise to help ensure that this does not happen again."
- Ryan Lillis

July 12, 2010
Hold the salsa and guacamole, please. It may be tainted.

GUACAMOLE.JPGHere's a depressing finding for Mexican food lovers. Research from the Centers Disease Control suggests that "nearly one out of every 25 restaurant-associated foodborne outbreaks with identified food sources between 1998 and 2008 can be traced back to contaminated salsa or guacamole." That's more than double the rate of the previous decade.

Apparently the likely source of the contamination in fresh salsa and guacamole is diced raw tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro -- each of which has been connected to past outbreaks. Improper storage and refrigeration aggravates the problem and was reported in 30 percent of such cases originating at restaurants and delis. Food workers are thought to be the source of contamination in 20 percent of cases.

The CDC says awareness of the health risk associated with fresh salsa and guacamole will help remind cooks at restaurants and at home to follow guidelines for safe preparation and storage. This will go a long way in reducing the incidence of contamination and pathogen growth.

July 12, 2010
Sac County unemployment no longer bucks state trends

Since 2000, Sacramento County unemployment has managed, through both booms and recession, to keep a bit ahead of the rest of the state -- often, a full percentage point better than California as a whole. That is, until the most recent bust. The loss of local and state employment, plus the worse-than average housing bust has taken its toll. Here's a look at how bad it has gotten in the county:
Thumbnail image for Sacto County unemp rate since 2000.JPG



By comparison, the state as a whole fared worse historically, but has been little different from our area during the recent economic troubles.
CA unemp rate since 2000.JPG

-Charles Piller

July 12, 2010
Interactive: California's whooping cough outbreak

The number of whooping cough cases reported in California this year has jumped sharply from previous years, largely because of inconsistent vaccination. The outbreak is widespread, but has been particularly strong in the Central Valley and Marin County.

"We are facing what could be the worst year for pertussis that this state has seen in more than 50 years," said CDPH Chief of the Center for Infectious Disease Dr. Gilberto Chávezon Monday. "We are urging health providers to broaden their use of the pertussis vaccine and we are urging Californians to take the simple step of getting vaccinated to prevent pertussis."

The map below has the breakout for January 2010 through June 2010.












Source: California Department of Public Health.

July 9, 2010
State officials fly free - courtesy of corporate nonprofit

By law, corporations are forbidden from giving gifts worth more than $420 to state officials.

But when gifts arrive via a corporate-funded non-profit group, the sky is literally the limit.

One year ago this month, The Bee reported that top state officials, legislators and business executives have regularly fanned out across the globe on yearly, lavish "study travel projects" trips paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a non-profit funded by major corporations, including Chevron, PG&E and Southern California Edison.

That story documented stays at the five-star beachfront Copacabana Palace hotel in Rio de Janeiro and a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and cited concerns of current and former state officials who went on the trips about the propriety of meeting with corporate executives behind closed doors.

Three months after The Bee story, state officials and business executives were off again on another foundation-funded trip, this one to China, according to state records dug up by citizen-journalist Jim Rothstein, through the California Public Records law.

Those records show the purpose of the trip was to investigate Chinese energy projects, low-carbon vehicles and broadband technologies -- but that it included plenty of downtime, including a stay at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai plus sight-seeing and nature tours.
byron_150x192.jpg
According to the documents Rothstein obtained, trip participants included members of the California Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, State Senate and Assembly as well as executives from Chevron, Covanta Energy Corp., AES North America Pacific, Shell Oil, Calpine Corp., RRI Energy, Southern California Edison and two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists.

The cost of the two-week trip for Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron (pictured at right) was estimated at $12,200, including $6,350 for round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Shanghai.

July 9, 2010
Mandate voting to moderate the electorate?

Off-year elections attract fewer voters as rule. About 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the June primary. And if history is a guide, somewhere between 50-55 percent will vote in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election. Some observers worry that those who participate in off-year elections are often positioned on the extremes of the ideological spectrum and so tend to elect candidates on the extremes. The result is a polarized, disfunctional government.

Electing more moderate people was the motive behind California's recently approved Proposition 14, the Top Two Open Primary Act. But one Brookings researcher has an even more radical solution to the problem of a polarized electorate: simply mandate voting for all eligible adults. William Galston argues that non-voters tend be more moderate than the "passionate partisans" who dominate many elections. Increasing voter turnout, he says, evens out the politics and prompts candidates "to appeal broadly beyond their partisan bases". 

Galston acknowledges that mandatory voting runs counter to the libertarian streak in American culture and wouldn't be popular in the U.S. Even so, it has been used in a number of countries, including Belgium, Austria, France and Greece. Australia, for example, passed such legislation in the 1920s when voter turnout fell to 60 percent. Today -- spurred by a modest fine -- Australians go to the polls at a rate of 95 percent.

July 8, 2010
Sacramento job market compares poorly to nation's

Job markets in the Sacramento region's three largest counties were more anemic than most other places across the nation last year, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Placer's job market looked the worst in 2009, with total employment declining 7 percent. Of the 335 largest counties in the nation, just 23 lost jobs at a faster rate last year. Only one other large California county, Tulare County, lost a higher proportion of jobs.loomis.png

The 8,000 net jobs lost in Placer County is roughly equivalent to the population of Loomis, a Placer County suburb.

Yolo County didn't fare much better. It ranked 287th out of 335 counties in job loss. Sacramento County did slightly worse than average, ranking 170th.

The study also showed relatively anemic pay growth in the region from 2008 to 2009.

July 6, 2010
Characteristics of identity theft victims

The U.S. Justice Department last week published a statistical profile of identity theft as reported by households in 2007. Though the data is a bit old, we get a sense of the problem: the rate and types of theft as well as the demographics of the affected families. In 2007 about 7.9 million households (6.6 percent of all U.S. households) had at least one member who was a victim of identity theft. According to the DOJ, the number of victimized households increased 23% from 2005 to 2007. Also during that period the number of households which experienced credit card theft increased by 31%.

In general, households headed by individuals over 65 were less likely to be victims. Households earning $75k and above were more likely to be victimized. Hispanic households were less likely than non-Hispanic ones. One-person households were victimized less than ones with two or more people over 12. The average amount lost per household in 2007 was $1,830.

Identity theft can happen to any of us. For a good overview of the crime, how it works, how to prevent it and what to do if you fall victim, see the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Site. The California Attorney General also has a helpful web site with tips and instructions for submitting information to the ID Theft Registry.

July 5, 2010
Feds revamp citizen portal USA.gov

usagov_logo.gifLast Friday the General Services Administration unveiled its revamped USA.gov, the one-stop gateway into vast array of online federal resources and services. Improvements in the 10-year-old web site make it easier for citizens to link to the most requested information (such as passport application, post office address change and federal job openings). In addition there's also a handy index of federal, state and local government agencies, as well as a contact listing for federal and state officials.

Also new on the site are descriptions of a growing number of government applications that run on Apple iPhones and other mobile devices. They range from a BMI Calculator and Product Recalls to FEMA Mobile and FBI's Most Wanted.

Readers of this blog will be interested in links to so-called Performance Dashboards, searchable databases that allow citizens to track federal spending, stimulus projects, medicare fraud prevention and agency rule-making.

July 5, 2010
Voter turnout increases in Sacramento County

Despite some doom-and-gloom predictions, voter turnout in Sacramento County during last month's primary increased significantly from the last gubernatorial election.

About 37.4 percent of the county's registered voters cast ballots this year, compared to 34.6 percent during 2006, according to the county elections office.

Even more important, the number of ballots cast jumped from 214,500 during the last gubernatorial primary to almost 250,000 during this one -- largely a result of so many people registering to vote before the 2008 presidential election.

In El Dorado and Placer counties, voter turnout approached 50 percent -- a significant increase from 2006, according to the latest counts. Locally, only Yolo posted a decline in turnout, possibly the result of a relatively uncontested gubernatorial and U.S. Senate ticket for Democrats.

The state still is counting ballots, and about 425,000 provisional and mail-in ballots are outstanding. Based on what's been counted so far, there's a good chance that statewide turnout will have increased. All counties must report to the state by the end of next week.


July 2, 2010
Sacramento County departments feud over bills

Sacramento County government is grumbling about high bills from, well, Sacramento County government.

The District Attorney's Office is claiming the county's IT department (formally known as the Office of Communications and Information Technology, or OCIT) is overbilling them almost $320,000 in the fiscal year starting July 1. The DA told the Board of Supervisors during budget hearings that the money is enough to pay for two attorneys.

As odd -- or perhaps absurd -- as it may sound, government charges itself for services. It's an accounting thing. So, for example, when an IT guy helps the District Attorney's Office with computer issues, the DA's office pays an hourly rate to the IT department.

The dispute stems from officials' decision to change the way they billed for services. In the past, IT department labor rates were higher. The rates included not just the labor costs but also helped cover the department's debt payments and other overhead costs.

Large departments like the DA's Office do much of their IT work in house and therefore were relatively unaffected by the high rates. Smaller departments that relied heavily on OCIT, however, paid more.

Last year, top county officials decided to lower the labor rate and break out the debt service and some overhead costs as a separate fee for all departments based on a per-employee basis. This means the labor costs went down for those departments that use OCIT regularly, while the cost went up for some, like the DA, that traditionally have not.

"It's important to recognize that OCIT does not show a "profit" through its rates. We're talking about one-sized pie, which can be sliced in different ways. There was no net increase in revenue for OCIT with the new cost methodology," the county's chief of e-government and business services, Rami Zakaria, wrote The Bee in an e-mail.

In response to the DA's concerns, county officials are reviewing how they charge departments for overhead, administration and other centralized costs.

July 2, 2010
Keepings secrets doesn't come cheap - $10 billion in 2009

If the federal government is looking to trim costs, it might consider a hack at the amazing amount spent to keep secrets -- nearly $10 billion last year, according to a new report from the Information Security Oversight Office.

A bargain, you say? Bear in mind that this does not include costs for keeping the CIA (a declassified cover of the agency's 9/11 interrogation report is here) CIA report.JPGand Defense Department secrets secure. As Secrecy News blogger Steven Aftergood points out, those costs are, well, secret.

-Charles Piller

July 2, 2010
CPB: California funding of schools ranks near bottom of U.S.

Is California racing to the bottom in its support for schools? A new analysis by the California Budget Project (a non-profit that advocates for the poor) says the state's funding of public education generally lags the rest of the country. CPB crunched data from the National Education Association and the National Center for Education Statistics and found:

* California ranked 44th in state spending per K-12 student in 2009-10 (Calif - $8,826; rest of nation - $11,372).
* California ranked 46th in state spending as a percentage of personal income in 2008-09 (3.28 percent versus 4.25 percent).
* California ranked 50th in the number of students per teacher in 2009-10 (21.3 versus 13.8).
* California's spending on schools as a share of the state economy trailed the rest of the country for at least 40 years and the gap grew to a record high in 2009-10 (3.3 percent versus 4.3 percent).
* California trailed the rest of the nation in per student spending since the early 1980s (inflation-adjusted dollars). The gap ballooned to $2,400 in 2009-10. 
* Largely due to Proposition 13, California schools after 1977-78 began receiving a much larger portion of funding from state versus local sources (55 percent versus 30 percent in 2009-10).

July 1, 2010
Lake Davis - stockyard or water supply?

Cows showed up this weekend at Lake Davis in Plumas County, angering 79-year-old Bob Baiocchi, president of California Fisheries and Water Unlimited, a local non-profit.

On Monday, Baiocchi sent an e-mail to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service - which leases the area to local ranchers for grazing - asking him to take action.

"For the past several years, we have attempted to obtain relief and have the cattle removed by the Regional Forester Randy Moore ... He did not take any actions."

Lake Davis, Biaocchi noted, is a major public water supply reservoir and popular for trout fishing and other recreation. Among other things, he asked Tidwell to remove cows from the area "as soon as possible because of effects to the public health and water quality."

His concerns are similar to those of retired U.C. Davis medical professor Robert Derlet, featured in a recent Bee story, who has published peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals showing that U.S. Forest Service lands leased for grazing across the Sierra Nevada high country often harbor levels of bacterial contamination high enough to sicken hikers and others with Giaridia, E. Coli and other diseases.

July 1, 2010
Supes invest wisely and get nice gifts

The Fair Political Practices Commission has posted the economic interest statements for elected officials including the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

The forms aren't necessarily shocking or even interesting. Susan Peters owns property. Roberta MacGlashan has some decent investments in major corporations. Jimmie Yee gave fellow supervisor Don Nottoli a $75 poinsettia plant.

But they do give a bit of an insight into the finances of the supervisors.

See for yourself:

Dickinson_Roger.pdf

Yee_Jimmie.pdf

Peters_Susan.pdf

MacGlashan_Roberta.pdf

Nottoli_Don.pdf

 

July 1, 2010
Interactive: California's most troubled schools

The state Department of Education makes school districts report each year whether they are fiscally sound. More than 150 California school districts say that, based on current projections, they may not be able to meet their financial obligations by 2012, the highest number in at least 15 years, according to the latest data. School districts in red are deemed to be in the worst shape.









About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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