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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Santa Cruz plays focus group to tax reform effort, Watsonville's Luis Alejo inches closer to the mayor's seat and UCSC Arts & Lectures outgoing director Jeannette Pilak breaks down the breakdown of the 35-year-old program.

Tax Reform Survey Says: Maybe

District 27 Assemblymember Bill Monning was pretty prophetic when he introduced the California Forward tax reform dialogue to the audience of more than 100 locals in a sweltering community room at Cabrillo College's horticulture center in Aptos last week. "California Forward is positioned to do some longer-term planning," he said. "We may have differences on how we get there."

And differ the participants did, heatedly debating how to fix California's tax structure and expressing their opinions via a keypad voting system that instantaneously quantified exactly how polarized even a small, überliberal community like Santa Cruz County can be.

Of the 100-plus attendees, the keypad polling revealed that the room was evenly split between men and women, with 88 percent Caucasian and most between the ages of 55 and 60. Most of the room also identified as liberal, although four brave souls keyed in "very conservative."

"We're not asking do you like or dislike taxes, but do we have the taxes right in California," explained Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley before introducing several concepts to a vote. "What I'd like to test tonight are concepts around which there is tension."

And sure enough, while most of the room was pretty homogenous on paper, it seemed to divide over the issues with gusto. When asked to rate several concepts for tax reform on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 meaning it's a very good idea), expanding California's sales tax to include more services clocked in at a 6.8, and the introduction of a carbon tax scored a 6.4. Devoting all the proceeds of a carbon tax to environmentally friendly projects like mass transit or renewable energy landed at 5.9, while the idea of broadly expanding taxable goods and services but dropping the overall tax amount scored a dismal 4.5. The numbers seemed to be the median result of many people voting either very high for a concept or very low.

"You guys in Santa Cruz really know how to have fun when it comes to tax policy," joked California Forward executive director Jim Mayer as the voting wore on.

Aside from the ideological fireworks was the enjoyable novelty of the keypad voting system.

"You've heard of speed dating? This is speed visioning," joked one of California Forward's directors, Susan Clark, as she taught the participants how to operate the remote control-sized keypads. The technology instantly compiles a spreadsheet of voting results from the audience.

"It allows us to capture how everyone in the room is thinking and feeling without everyone individually voicing it," explained Mayer. "People like clicking, too. It's just plain fun."

More fun, apparently, than hammering out a solution to California's revenue problem. By the end of the evening, it seemed none of the ideas had stolen the hearts of the sample size group of Santa Cruzans. And if the numbers prove anything, it's that California Forward has its work cut out for it.

Alejo Anointed Vice-Mayor

At a special session of the Watsonville City Council last Friday, the agenda said only "Vacant, District 7" where 71-year-old Mayor Pro Tempore Dale Skillicorn's name once was. Inside council chambers, his nameplate still sat before the empty chair. The rest of the council had gathered to decide how to fill it.

One by one, Councilmembers Kimberly Petersen, Manuel Bersamin, Antonio Rivas and Luis Alejo took a moment to pay their respects to Skillicorn, who died unexpectedly on March 14. "We disagreed in the past," said Alejo. "But I had a chance to have a conversation with him, and we actually agreed on more things that we disagreed. I think we gained each other's respect."

All eyes were then on Alejo as the council deliberated about whether he should assume Skillicorn's role as vice mayor. There was a distinct "do-over" feeling to the proceedings, which had gone so wrong for Alejo and his supporters in December, when Councilmember Greg Caput led the effort to give Skillicorn the seat with the now-ominous-sounding statement "Dale Skillicorn's time has come." A more subdued, smaller collection of Alejo-boosters gathered, including Alejo's mother, members of the Central Labor Council and Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal, to repeat, at times in identical language, a request to place Alejo in the seat. Shouts of "Ditto!" and "Amen!" peppered the public comment.

This time, with little debate, the council gave Alejo its blessing with a vote of 4-1, with Councilmember Emilio Martinez absent and Caput once again dissenting. Though he gave no explanation, it was clear the last time around that he felt the appointments were best made by seniority and experience.

"I think he is a good choice," said Mayor Rivas, likening Skillicorn to Alejo for their shared dedication to the city of Watsonville.

The council then compared schedules to determine a date for interviewing and appointing a new representative for District 7, barely acknowledging the option to hold a special election, which would not only leave the seat empty for months but cost the city up to $16,000. The new councilmember will be selected through an interview process on March 26, and potential candidates have until today to submit their letters of interest.

According to City Clerk Beatriz Flores, though there has been a great deal of interest, only one letter has been submitted so far, from Planning Commissioner and the former District 7 Councilmember Betty Bobeda.

Mayor Rivas concluded the meeting, saying, "Congratulations, Luis Alejo." Where months before they had stormed out in anger, the small crowd of Alejo supporters this time stood and gave a standing ovation.

Math Killed the Arts

The decision by UCSC to gut the Arts & Lectures program after the current season is a decision that ends a 35-year history of bringing well known artists to Santa Cruz. However, no one is wearing a black cowboy hat in this story. What the demise of Arts & Lectures comes down to is that not enough people--UCSC and non-UCSC parties alike--were willing to put enough money into the program to keep it economically viable in these hard times.

"There's not just one magic bullet," outgoing Arts & Lectures director Jeanette Pilak admitted in a recent phone interview. "One of the leading issues for A&L was that it had a very dedicated pool of donor members, but it was a very small pool." Despite a heavy fundraising campaign over the past two seasons, Pilak says the economic interest from the community just wasn't there. Over the last four years, not only has the donor support dropped by 50 percent, ticket sales have continued to decline as well. And in an effort to keep the program accessible to Santa Cruz residents, the program hasn't raised ticket prices in the last four years.

"All of that exists against a backdrop where we have to have permanent budget cuts in the amount of $13 million," explains UCSC Assistant Vice Chancellor Catherine Faris.

Though there are numerous reasons A&L became economically unviable, the UCSC Arts & Lectures Producer Circle Members believe that UCSC had the power to save the program. In an open letter to the media, members Trink Paxel, Ernie Hudson, Chinshu Huang and Gordon Pusser highlighted the positive treatment of the arts programs on the remaining eight UC campuses. They also claimed that while both A&L and Shakespeare Santa Cruz have had running deficits for years, it was the differentiating treatment that the two companies received from the University that doomed A&L. Citing Shakespeare Santa Cruz's well publicized fundraising push to raise $300,000 in a week to save the company, the letter points out that A&L was not given this option.

In response, Faris says, "A&L tried to raise funds over the last two years. In fact, those numbers decreased."

Arts & Lectures will finish the current season as planned. Next season, it will focus on campus cultural events, lectures and student and faculty productions. Faris doesn't discount the possibility of a touring artist here and there, but they will no longer be the core of the program.

For Pilak, the loss of touring artist such as this season's David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor and Zakir Hussain has a wide reach. "This year, many of the interns who worked with A&L were students who did not have arts or music education in their K-12 schooling, and unless they're in an arts program in college, I really worry about where we're going to be in a generation or two. There are a rich number of arts organizations in Santa Cruz and I wish them the best of luck. ... But if you look at the quality of the [musicians] who were brought just this year, that would be a huge loss for the community."

Field Trip to the Dump

Mustard grass and wild radishes color the gently sloping hills at Buena Vista Landfill in Watsonville with reassuring greens and yellows. Below the grass and a foot of soil on this closed section of the landfill is a clay cap that covers the trash of generations past, where lurk countless tons of recyclables, compostable organic matter and the sinful polystyrene that will surely outlast humankind.

No trees will grow here, says Kasey Kolassa, the county's recycling and solid waste services manager, speaking to a group of about 30 of the county's Master Composter program participants at its eighth annual tour of the landfill and green waste recycling facility. Kolassa points out the pipes that collect methane and carbon dioxide emitted by the garbage. The gases feed a co-generation facility that produces three megawatts of energy, enough to power 3,000 homes. Beyond the hill of yesterday's trash, just before the land turns into strawberry fields, is Vision Recycling, a private company contracted with the county that processes green waste into reusable horticulture products like mulch and compost.

County estimates predict that the landfill will be full in fewer than 16 years. Every day, the county accepts over 450 tons of refuse, some of which is recycled or diverted through intricate diversion methods. Law-abiding citizens take the initial step by separating their refuse into recycables, green waste and solid waste. But even much of the solid waste is diverted from the landfill: at Buena Vista, metal is pulled for scraps, wood scraps are diverted, mattresses are sent away to be recycled and hazardous household materials like paint are collected and given away for free.

Instead of green refuse filling up the landfill and emitting methane as it does in places that don't have a green waste recycling program, yard clippings, wood scraps and the like are processed at Vision Recycling. Company president Tom Del Conte says Vision annually processes 50,000 tons of green waste, about 3 percent of the county's total refuse, which is turned into a variety of mulches, wood chips and soil amendments that are sold back to the public.

Continuing to increase the percentage of refuse that's reused, recycled or composted is a goal that Kolassa, the folks at Vision Recycling and Master Composter participants all have in common.

Jeff Gage, director of Vision Recycling, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the waste that goes into the landfill is food scraps and organic material that could be composted. The company has a small composting pilot program with some local restaurants, where it processes food scraps into a sanitary, rich black compost. Gage and Del Conte said they are pursuing obtaining permits to expand its composting operation to a countywide curbside food scraps collection program, and hope to go before the Board of Supervisors in November.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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