The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

April 27, 2012
Family farmers win skirmish on safety regulations for kids
A big concern in California's farming community is how to attract younger people to agriculture. The average age of the state's 130,000 farmers and ranchers is getting close to 60, and it's not at all clear who will step in when they retire.

As I wrote about last fall as part of the "Regs Run Amok" series, some argue that excessive layers of regulation are helping drive family farmers off the land and getting in the way of younger farmers just starting out.

In recent weeks, one regulation that has received a lot of attention was a federal proposal that would have banned children under 16 from using tractors and most other powered farm equipment, and would have restricted those under 18 from working at grain silos and feed lots.

Even though the proposal didn't cover children of farmers, family farmers flooded the department with comments in opposition, saying the proposal would add unnecessary restrictions. Agribusiness also lobbied against it.

Thursday, the Labor Department announced it was withdrawing the proposal.

The California Farm Bureau Federation joined those applauding the decision.

"Few issues galvanized family farmers and ranchers like this one did," federation President Paul Wenger said in a statement. "Everyone who has grown up on a farm or ranch recognizes the value of allowing young people to learn by doing."

Not everyone is happy with the decision.

Advocacy groups for migrant farm workers say that the rules would have protected children who are hired by farmers. Some accused the Obama administration of caving to powerful farm groups and lawmakers from rural states in an election year.

"These were common-sense protections that would have saved many children's lives," David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, said in a statement.
April 24, 2012
VA adds reinforcements to help families on homefront
As legions of military men and women return from dusty, dangerous hamlets in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government is realizing that it's not only veterans who need help making the transition to civilian life, it's their families as well.

Even more, the Department of Veterans Affairs is starting to do something about.

The latest move: The department announced today that it is expanding its mental health services to include marriage and family therapists, as well as licensed professional mental health counselors. Those two fields will be included among the additional 1,900 mental health staffers that the VA plans to hire nationwide.

"The addition of these two mental health professions is an important part of VA's mission to expand access to mental health services," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement. "Veterans and their families can face unique challenges. By providing a complete range of services, we can help them address those challenges and help keep more families together."

In addition, because the new workers will be hired locally, it could provide a little boost to job markets across California, where the unemployment rate is still above the national average and where a large number of veterans live.

The VA also recently launched a new program that provides more aid to families of injured veterans who need help with daily living. As I wrote in February, the caregiver support program gives spouses monthly stipends of as much as $2,000, plus health insurance and travel expenses.

While the image we often see on TV is of happy reunions when soldiers come home, the reality is that divorce and marital stress is a reality, one made worse by repeated, lengthy deployments of our all-volunteer military. With all the issues that returning vets have on their plate, family support is essential.
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April 23, 2012
Is Kansas City a model for Sacramento, or is it a warning?

Throughout Sacramento's never-ending arena drama, boosters have pointed to Kansas City as a model to emulate.

It's happening again now that the Maloof family, owners of the Kings, has bailed on the framework of a deal to build a downtown arena. Mayor Kevin Johnson is talking up the possibility of moving ahead with a new arena in the railyard without the NBA team as an anchor tenant, noting that the Sprint Center in Kansas City is doing well without a pro sports franchise.

In November, his Think Big committee brought in former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes to talk about the economic development generated by the Sprint Center. Boosters see the arena as a game-changing project to jump-start development in the railyard and bring visitors from across the region to downtown Sacramento.

But as The Bee's editorial board pointed out then, the development boom in Kansas City also included a new convention center, a performing arts center and a retail and entertainment district. The editorial also noted that the city has had to dip into its general fund because sales taxes from the Power & Light District hadn't been covering all the debt payments.

Today, The Wall Street Journal weighed in on that point. It reported that traffic and sales are well below projections for the entertainment mecca for which Kansas City borrowed $295 million for infrastructure and other needs. That is forcing the city to set aside $12.8 million in its 2012-13 budget to cover the difference, and similar gaps are expected for years, the Journal says. The city's debt has led to a potential downgrade from one bond rating agency.

The newspaper says the problem in Kansas City is being repeated across the country because many cities sunk big money into development projects during the real estate boom, and those bets have turned sour because of the real estate crash and recession.

As Sacramento decides its next step, Kansas City could be as much a cautionary tale as a success story.

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April 20, 2012
VA pledges to speed up Northern California disability claims

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is offering what looks like a smidgen of progress to deal with a big backlog and a high error rate at the office that handles disability claims for Northern California vets.

Responding to a Thursday letter from 16 members of Congress from California, the VA issued a statement this morning that pledges it is "committed to doing everything within its authority" to improve the Oakland regional office's performance.

The Bee's editorial board is calling on the VA to fix the problems, pointing out the the average wait time of 313 days is well above the national average and that the backlog of 34,000 cases (80 percent of which are at least four months old) is the second worst in the country. In addition, about 74 percent of the claims are decided correctly by the office, 13 percent below the national average.

The office handles claims for service-related injuries and for mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, for veterans in 48 counties stretching from the Oregon border to the Bay Area and down the Central Valley.

Despite its problems, the Oakland office is not among the 12 nationwide scheduled to get a complete overhaul this year that includes a new computer system.

The VA statement today does not specifically put Oakland on that list, but does say it "will incorporate" some of the improvements. The agency also says that if it receives the necessary funding, the improvements will be made to the remaining 40 regional offices across the country by the end of 2013.

The VA says it is dealing with a record number of disability claims -- more than 1 million in each of the past two years -- because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an aging veteran population, Agent Orange cases from Vietnam and its own outreach efforts. 

The VA's response so far isn't enough to satisfy Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Pleasanton Democrat who was one of those who signed the letter. He asked for specific steps to lessen the backlog of claims and called for a "definitive timeline of steps to improve the processing of claims."

"I am disappointed it has taken the VA so long to address these issues, and concerned that the response is not a concrete plan," he said in a statement.

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April 17, 2012
Darrell Fong leads the way on Save Our Pools drive

Darrell Fong has not been a standout on the Sacramento City Council in his first term. He has been more of an enigma, as I detailed earlier this year.

But you have to give him some credit for his fund-raising ability.

He far outpaced his fellow district council members in helping the city and Save Mart Supermarkets reach the $1 million goal to open the city's pools this summer.

With the help of parks advocates in his district, Fong brought in $78,000 of the $163,000 in pledges secured by council members, according to a tally that Mayor Kevin Johnson sent around Monday. Fellow first-termer Angelique Ashby came in second with $27,000, while veteran Steve Cohn came in third with $20,000.

The two incumbents who aren't seeking re-election this year apparently weren't that interested. Rob Fong didn't bring in any pledges, and Sandy Sheedy a mere $250, according to the mayor's count.

Overall, $533,000 was raised or pledged by businesses, Save Mart customers, city residents and others. When matched dollar for dollar by Save Mart, that will be enough to open the same six pools the city opened last summer, plus all five standalone wading pools.

The mayor says 200,000 Sacramento kids will be the beneficiaries.

"This was a team effort, and I appreciate everyone's willingness to engage in friendly competition, make phone calls and rally the community to preserve this important resource," Johnson said in his email.

April 3, 2012
Fruitridge Manor in Sacramento will get a park, finally

The Fruitridge/Broadway area in southeast Sacramento is short of parkland. 

That's about to change. 

The district's City Councilman, Kevin McCarty, announced today that the state has awarded a $2.8 million grant to develop a park in Fruitridge Manor at the site of the former Manor Recreation and Swim club at 61st Street and 40th Avenue.

He noted that it is the only neighborhood in his district without a park and called it "a big win for a somewhat forgotten neighborhood." 

As part of its "Local Parks: Legacy of Neglect" series, The Bee editorial board pointed out in 2010 that the city has a stated goal of providing a park within a half-mile radius of every resident and of at least 2.5 acres of neighborhood parkland and 2.5 acres of community parks for every 1,000 people. Fruitridge/Broadway was only about halfway to the goal.     

McCarty's announcement praised the efforts of the neighborhood association to transform the private club into a public park serving a neighborhood of about 5,000 people.  

Construction on the new park is to start later this year. The park will eventually include soccer fields, a basketball court, a skate park, a children's playground and other features. 

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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