The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

March 28, 2012
Sacramento hopes 'smart' manhole covers stop overflows
Sacramento's Utilities Department now has the go-ahead from the City Council for three years of double-digit rate hikes to finance more than $260 million in water and sewer repairs.

It also is seeking far less expensive ways to avoid costly and messy sewage overflows.

One approach is to test "smart" manhole covers on the city's antiquated system of sewage pipes. In big storms, the deluge can flood streets and basements with a disgusting and toxic brew.

Sensors on the underside of the manhole covers measure water levels. If there's a dangerous spike, a supervisor will be alerted and a repair crew can be sent out.

The city just bought 10 of them, for a relatively cheap $4,500 a piece. It plans to install them at 10 "hot spots" that have a history of overflows.

Here's the list:

68th Avenue and 21st Street
River Park (exact location to be determined)
Rio Linda and Acacia Avenue
John Still Drive and 24th Street 
South Land Park Drive and Ridgeway Drive
Detroit Boulevard
Strawberry Manor (exact location to be determined)
Old Sacramento (exact location TBD)
Greenhaven Drive near Florin Road
Hollywood Park (exact location TBD)

If they work, the city has plans to put in 10 more a year for the next five years.

Other cities are also testing the manhole cover sensors, according to an article on Atlantic Cities, the magazine's website on municipal issues. Municipalities are hoping that this will be a cheaper way to comply with federal clean water rules to prevent overflows.

Many of these cities -- mostly in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest -- have combined sewage systems like the network that covers downtown Sacramento and some older neighborhoods where pipes collect both sewage and stormwater.
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March 22, 2012
Congress passes insider trading ban, but is it tough enough?

It's amazing how a little shame can go a long way.

For years, Congress ignored calls to put itself under the same insider trading rules as the rest of us. But after a "60 Minutes" report in November unleashed a tidal wave of criticism, bills started moving.

And on Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved and sent to President Barack Obama a measure that would ban members of Congress, along with other government officials, from trading stocks and other securities based on confidential information they learn from private briefings and other venues. The STOCK Act would also require them to disclose their trades.

But this being Washington, the House version of the bill headed toward becoming law isn't as strong as it could or should be.

As The Bee editorial board pointed out last month, the original Senate version is much stronger and preferable. It would make it easier for federal prosecutors to go after public corruption. It also included a provision that would force "political intelligence consultants" -- people who gather information of interest to hedge funds and other investors -- to register like other lobbyists.

On Tuesday, however, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he lacked the votes to push those changes.

And this being Washington, Democrats blamed Republicans for the weaker law.

"Despite this victory, we know more must be done to change the ways of Washington," top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a statement "House Republicans had the opportunity to take up the original, stronger, bipartisan Senate proposal, but refused to bring it up for a vote. Now, we must work to strengthen this legislation and uphold the confidence of the American people."

So while this legislation is better than the status quo, it would let a lot of nefarious activity continue on Capitol Hill. And it would all be legal.

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March 20, 2012
Do Republicans have a political winner in veterans homes?

For all the missteps California Republicans have made recently (my colleague Dan Morain catalogued some of them on Sunday), even they can't miss this obvious a potential political winner.

While Californians disagree on the wisdom of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's widespread support for the troops. So Assembly Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a baker's dozen bills to help the increasing numbers of new military veterans make the transition to the home front. The bills cover registration preferences at colleges, custody rights for vets who are single parents, recognition of health care training in the military and more.

The Republicans highlighted one measure that would earmark $26.1 million from the state's general fund to actually open and run the new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding.

As I've chronicled, the state and federal governments have invested big bucks to build them, but there's no money as yet to operate them so veterans can actually live there. The $159 million home in Fresno has 300 beds, while the $88 million home in Redding has 150 beds.

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal calls for a further delay; the homes would not open until January 2014. Until then, the state would spend $280,000 a month for upkeep and maintenance.

In his recent visit to The Bee editorial board, Brown said he hasn't changed his mind, despite intense lobbying from legislators and veterans advocates. He said the key question remains: Where do you get the money?

The authors of the veterans home funding measure, Assembly Bill 2151, ask a different question: How high a priority do you put on veterans?

"In a budget of $90 billion, it makes no sense to cut a few million dollars on those who sacrificed so much for our country," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Gerber the principal co-author of Assembly Bill 2151. "Budgets are about priorities and our veterans must be a priority."

"Veterans should always be a top legislative and budget priority," Assemblywoman Linda Halderman of Fresno added in a statement.

March 15, 2012
U.S. Senate breaks logjam on federal judicial nominees

There's apparently a deal today in the U.S. Senate that would break a logjam on federal judicial nominees that has stalled several California judges in waiting.

Several reports say that top Democrat Harry Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell have agreed to allow floor votes by May 7 on 14 of 22 pending nominations -- two a week.

Reid has been pushing for the votes, focusing on the 14 who received bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee. They include two from California: Jacqueline Ngyuen for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal and Michael Fitzgerald for the Central District of California.

UPDATE: The Senate voted 91-6 on Thursday to confirm Fitzgerald.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who recommended him to the White House, noted that he makes history as the first openly gay federal judge in the state.

"The federal bench in California will gain an extremely talented new judge as a result of today's historic vote to confirm Michael Fitzgerald," Boxer said in a statement. "His sharp intellect and broad legal experience will make him a tremendous asset to the people of the Central District. While I am pleased by today's overwhelming vote, it is shameful that he had to wait so long for a vote and I hope that Republicans will stop blocking the confirmation of highly qualified nominees."

As The Bee's editorial board pointed out last week in calling for votes on the nominations, both those courts are overburdened with cases, slowing justice for everyone.

Reid took the high-stakes step on Monday of scheduling votes to end filibusters on 17 of the nominations. In return for allowing the votes, Republicans will reportedly get Senate consideration of a jobs bill aimed at small businesses passed by the GOP-controlled House.

Several liberal-leaning advocacy groups have also been lobbying for the confirmation votes.

"Today's agreement is good news for many Americans who have been facing understaffed courts and delayed justice simply because of partisan gridlock in the Senate," People for the American Way's Marge Baker said in a statement. "But, unfortunately, today's progress doesn't end the Republican gridlock. Even after these 14 nominees are confirmed, far too many seats on our federal courts will still be vacant. President Obama's nominees still face consistent, unprecedented delays. It is absolutely ridiculous that it took such pressure to allow votes on a group of eminently qualified nominees with strong bipartisan support."

March 14, 2012
On parking deal, Sacramento has few guideposts to follow

Not only is a potential parking deal essential to financing a new arena in downtown Sacramento, its success -- or failure -- could also point the way for cash-poor cities across the country.

That much is made clear again in a new piece on Atlantic Cities, the municipal policy website of the venerable magazine. "Is There a Smart Way for Cities to Privatize Parking?" the article's headline asks.

It points out that Sacramento could become only the third major U.S. city to privatize its parking. As author Nate Berg details, "the two others -- Chicago and Indianapolis -- have had wildly different experiences with their privatization schemes, paving an uncertain path for Sacramento."

Chicago is widely viewed as a cautionary tale. Its 2008 plan leased the city's parking meters for 75 years for a one-time payment of $1.16 billion, which it immediately used to fill budget holes and pay for everyday services. The private company jacked up rates and in its first year made a profit of $32 million, Berg says, while the city is stuck with a 75-year contract.

Indianapolis is seen as a success story. In 2010, the city turned over parking to a private firm for $20 million up front and revenue sharing. In the first full year of the 50-year deal, the city's parking-related revenue hit $1.4 million, more than double the average in recent years. The private company raised rates, but it also improved technology and convenience, Berg says.

Sacramento, however, needs much more cash up front than Indianapolis received, in the neighborhood of $230 million of its $255 million share of arena construction costs.

It is looking at two general approaches: a long-term lease with a private company that would pay the city up front, or a city-created nonprofit that would borrow against future parking revenues.

There are pros and cons to both.

The long-term lease would put more of the risk on the private operator, if future parking revenues don't meet projections. But it would tie up a city asset for probably 50 years. And the city would likely give up some control over parking rates.

The city-affiliated nonprofit would let the city keep control over parking rates and the workforce -- which makes it attractive to some City Council members. But if revenues don't pan out, the city would face more risk, and in a worst-case scenario might have to dip into its general fund to repay bondholders.

Berg says that Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, City Hall's point person on the arena, is "trying to learn as much from Indianapolis' successes as from Chicago's missteps."

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March 8, 2012
Count Gov. Brown a skeptic on Sacramento arena deal
20120308_PK_BROWN_0107.JPGGov. Jerry Brown came in this afternoon to talk to The Bee's editorial board about his November tax measure and the state budget. But ask him about anything and the man will have an opinion.

Like the big topic this week in Sacramento -- the proposed new arena downtown.

While he was careful to say he hasn't spent a lot of time studying the issue, he also indicated he's squarely in the skeptics camp.

The public needs to focus, he said, on how the arena is being financed. 

"I would look into the details of how it all gets paid for," Brown said, adding that he isn't sure how the city will get its up-front contribution from leveraging its downtown parking.

But the governor also recognized which way things are headed after the City Council's vote Tuesday night to approve a term sheet on the arena.

"It's worthy of civic debate, but I can tell you once that boosterism gets going, it's like a freight train," he said.

Though he acknowledged that the areas around AT&T Park in San Francisco and Petco Park in San Diego are hopping, he recommended reading Roger Noll, a Stanford economist who is among those who question the benefits of arenas and stadiums to a city's economic development.

Part of Brown's skepticism is born of his experience as Oakland mayor, when the NFL Raiders extracted public money for improvements to the coliseum, which he said was not a good deal for the city. And now, he noted, the Raiders and A's want new facilities because they say the stadium is obsolete.

Pro teams continually push for nicer arenas and stadiums with more luxury boxes so they can afford escalating player salaries, he said.

"This," the governor said, "is a very strange business."

Bee photo by Paul Kitagaki, March 8, 2012.

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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