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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

The sheriff's department scratches its head over Santa Cruz council's ride-home idea, coho salmon gasp for water, union gets proactive over forthcoming county budget cuts and Watsonville lawyer Luis Alejo wins the first annual Tony Hill Award.

Sheriff's Taxi Service

The last time Laura Clark got out of the clink without a ride home, she walked from the Main Jail at 259 Water St. in Santa Cruz to her house in Live Oak.

"I would have taken a ride if they had asked me, I guess," says Clark, who was waiting outside the jail last Wednesday afternoon before going in for a drug court session. "But I was crafty enough to get put in jail, I figure I'm crafty enough to find my way home."

The rarity of such self-sufficiency is behind the Santa Cruz City Council's plan to devise a program that gives recently released jail inmates a ride back to their homes--possibly by the same officers who brought them to jail. Councilman Ryan Coonerty, who co-authored the initiative, says people are brought to the Main Jail from all corners of Santa Cruz County. When they are released, however, he says many of them don't have a way to get home, so they wander into the downtown area.

Though no dates are set, Coonerty says the city will meet with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Steve Robbins and his staff to discuss ways of getting the folks home, or least out of the downtown area.

"People commit crimes all over the county, and there is no reason that they should all be released into downtown Santa Cruz," says Coonerty. "The idea would be, when people are released they would be driven back to their hometown in the county. The sheriffs bring people to the jail. When they leave we'd like them to bring them home."

There are no estimates of how much this will cost, but for Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Sheriff Len Lofano, any cost is too much for his cash-strapped office.

"There is no money for a ride home program. There is no money for a bus pass program. There's simply nothing the sheriff can do to tell [people released from jail] where to go, or make them go," says Lofano. "Most of the people who are arrested are coming from the downtown area anyway."

Whatever the city works out with the county, there's at least one resident who thinks there are better things to spend tax money on than police escorts for released inmates.

"Our whole economy is in crisis, and they're worried about giving people like me a ride home?" says Clark, who recently moved to lower Ocean, a shorter walk from the joint. "Would I jump in and take the ride? Yeah, probably. I just think we don't have the money for that kind of thing."

Thirsty Fish

Critically endangered coho salmon are returning to Santa Cruz County rivers in frighteningly low numbers, according to local scientists. In Scott Creek, where most of the county's coho are found, researchers have counted only six adults--five males and one female--well into the spawning season.

The dry weather is largely to blame, says Bruce MacFarlane, a fisheries scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. "We haven't had any rain, and without rain, the streams can't breach the sandbar and the fish can't get upstream. They did finally get in, but it took a long time."

MacFarlane adds that the dry conditions meant the fish were stuck waiting offshore for a chance to move upstream, which left them vulnerable to hungry seals and sea lions patrolling the coast for food. In a normal year, December brings rainstorms of sufficient magnitude that the streams breach the sandbars and the coho can swim upstream to lay their eggs. This year it didn't happen until January.

As a result, only a handful of redds, or nests of eggs, have appeared in Scott Creek. Even Lagunitas Creek in Marin County, a stronghold of the embattled species, is reporting dangerously low numbers of redds. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, scientists had counted just 20 redds in Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks as of Jan. 10--compared to 148 at the same time last year and 496 in 2004.

Dave Streig, who runs the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Hatchery on a tributary of Scott Creek, just off Swanton Road, says all the creeks are at "basically low summer water flow"--and time is running out for the coho to get back upstream and spawn.

"We're getting close to the end of the time period for coho," Streig says. "If we don't get them in within the next three weeks, we will have lost this year class."

His advice: "Pray for rain."

SEIU Proactive With County

County Administrative Officer Susan Mauriello swore up and down at the Board of Supervisors meeting two weeks ago that she would do her best to include unions in the conversation when it comes to closing the county's $25 million budget gap--which she warned could take a combination of 400 position losses, temporary layoffs, furloughs and raise and benefit delays. "These are things that are not going to be simple to do," she said. "They're going to require a lot of talking."

Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents about 1,800 county workers, has already reconvened its Budget Action Team, which will be doing much of the aforementioned "talking." Alison Hayes, a supervisor at County Health Services Agency and chair of BAT, says the 35-member team formed to mitigate cuts from last year's budget and has started meeting again this month.

"The successes of last summer have really made a cultural shift," she says. "I don't think SEIU has been as involved in the budget process as much as it was starting last year."

Instead of waiting to see the budget and frantically negotiating changes before the July deadline, BAT is already pumping department managers for information on vacancies, revenue and interest in voluntary time off so the union can start maneuvering to save jobs.

Unlike the state, the county cannot order furloughs without a union agreement. Instead, Hayes says a useful money-saving strategy used last year was the Advanced Voluntary Time Off program, which allowed workers to give up a few hours a week in order to save the county money for programs and employees.

Dinah Phillips, a spokeswoman for the county, warned that though AVTO did save some jobs last time around, it can't be relied on too heavily during times of uncertainty. "It's hard to manage from the department point of view," she says. "It's hard if people change their minds or their situation changes and they have to go back to full time." Phillips and Hayes both agree, however, that the county and the unions are moving in a more collaborative direction than in years past. "We're all in this together and it's going to take all of us to figure out how to get through," says Phillips.

Two Tributes

This Valentine's Day week, Santa Cruz will have two primo opportunities to love, honor and ridicule, which is, of course, the formula for any healthy relationship.

First comes love and honor, when Feb. 12 marks the first annual Tony Hill Award, which is being presented to Watsonville Councilman and lawyer Luis Alejo at the 25th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation at the Civic Auditorium. Keynote speaker Van Jones, founding president of Green for All and author of The Green Collar Economy, will deliver his lecture "The Green-Collar Economy: Restoring the Earth, Good Jobs, and MLK's Dream."

Next comes ridicule, when former Assemblyman John Laird donates his ego to comedy on Feb. 13. The Santa Cruz Democratic Party will roast him--his clothes? His glasses? His hairline?--to a blackened crisp, all in the name of love. For a mere $75, attendees will enjoy appetizers, booze, jazz and a few low blows in an evening titled "To John, With Love." Laird's skill for dealing well with just about anyone will likely see him through the night, and naturally everyone makes up by the end of the evening--never more important than on the night before Valentine's Day.

THE 25TH ANNUAL MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. MEMORIAL CONVOCATION is Thursday, Feb. 12, at 7:30pm at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Free, but arrive early.

TO JOHN, WITH LOVE is Friday, Feb. 13, at 5:30pm at the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $75, reservations at 831.423.2356.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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