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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Santa Cruz's only biodiesel station folds, the Summit Fire mellows and the county budget cuts hit the weakest the hardest--but not because anyone wants it that way. Also: Metro Santa Cruz's endorsements for Tuesday's primary election.

Biodiesel Chokes

After just over a year of selling biodiesel at the intersection of Ocean and Broadway, Pacific Biofuel is closing down shop.

"We don't have any money to buy any more fuel," general manager Will Noel simply states.

But what began as owner Ray Newkirk's homemade backyard biodiesel experiment nine years ago may undergo yet another transformation: into a member-owned cooperative.

"We're all really sorry to see that no profit was made," says Newkirk. "But it still comes down to the fact that the reason this whole thing was started was to get biodiesel out to the public."

The mood is heavy on Friday, May 23, the last day of selling fuel, and employees and customers are somber at the closing of the only nonpetroleum station in town. The last few gallons of biodiesel sell for a pricey $4.99, up from $4.29 last month. Though biodiesel is made primarily from recycled vegetable oil and virgin soy oil, its rising price is inextricably linked to the price of petroleum: as costs of the petroleum-based fertilizer and shipping costs have risen, so has biodiesel's price. Newkirk says the company tried to make the fuel as accessible as possible by consistently selling it for 25 cents over cost. In the end, profits weren't enough to sustain the business.

"As a smaller company, we could barely compete with the price of big diesel distributors," says Noel. He says Pac Fuel's biodiesel was consistently 10 cents higher than diesel--not a problem a year ago, when fuel was less expensive. "As the economy's tightened up, a lot of our wholesale customers couldn't take that 10 cent increase anymore," Noel says.

The closing of the commercial station may not mean the end of biodiesel in Santa Cruz. Newkirk says he's been discussing plans to turn the station into a member-owned cooperative. Members would pay a joining fee and small monthly dues, which would allow them to purchase the fuel at cost.

Heather Grinager, a Pac Fuel customer and owner of two diesel vehicles, says she's interested in a biodiesel cooperative. "I see more people paying a little extra now, knowing that we're creating sustainability for our future," she says.

If the station is not turned into a co-op, it might be purchased by other investors and stay open. It might also shut down completely, leaving those who own diesel cars with no local station where they can purchase the petroleum alternative.

Newkirk, his employees and many of his friends all use biodiesel, and they too hope for a cooperative where they can fill up. "Otherwise, I'll be back in my backyard, brewing my own batches again and being right where we started, saying, 'Oh shit, now how do we get thousands of people using it?'" Newkirk says. "I'm not going back to petrol."

Home Fires

The Summit Fire that engulfed the Santa Cruz Mountains around Corralitos on Thursday morning, May 22, hit the small, tight-knit rural community without warning, resulting in some last-minute heroism and a great deal of anxious waiting. Hours after the early-morning blaze was first detected, dozens of cars lined Corralitos Road and Hames Road as highway patrolmen blocked off Eureka Canyon Road. No one was allowed back up the mountain, even those who had left for work in the morning and been given no opportunity to gather valuables or rescue pets. At nearby Bradley Elementary School, officials with dust masks ferried children to waiting parents while the remaining students stayed inside. There was a lot of nervous pacing around the cars parked near the Corralitos Market.

Leaning on the side of one of these cars was Nathon Zazzara, a man in his mid-30s with a deceptively calm look on his face. He was enjoying an apple only hours after being forced to abandon the battle to save his father's home on Dove Lane near Nisene Marks State Park, one of at least 10 structures that the more than 2,000-acre fire had destroyed by midday Thursday (four hours later, aided by relentless winds, it had grown to almost 3,000 acres). Zazzara was unhappy at the loss of a house he'd watched his father build plank by plank, but for the moment, he was just relieved that his family had gotten out safe.

"My father built that house out of wood he hand-selected from the lumberyard, to get only the very best," Zazzara remembered. "I have a lot of great memories watching my father build that when I was young, but the main thing is just that I was able to get my father out of there. Even after the fire battalion chief told us to leave, he was going to stay until who knows when."

Down the road, Dave Loveless was directing evacuees to the Corralitos Community Church, where families could get out of the smoke, have some coffee and listen to the latest news from the fire's front lines. He reported a general sense of frustration among the evacuees, many of whom were unable to gather valuables or mementos before it was too late.

"A lot of people left to go to work in the morning," he says. "They left all their animals up there and it's a one-way road, so they can't let people go back up there. The fire crews need the access. But people are definitely frustrated. When you're focusing on your pets and family, it's hard to see the big picture."

Closer to the road blockade on Eureka Canyon, District 3 County Supervisor Ellen Pirie was on the scene. She had just received assurances from the California Department of Forestry that help was on the way in the form of a "supertanker" helicopter and 500 firefighters from Southern California. She said fire officials were attempting to hold the blaze to 4,000 acres, but winds were extremely powerful.

"We don't know how many structures have been destroyed yet, but we know hundreds more are at risk," Pirie said. "It's really hard to tell because it's very rugged terrain."

As of presstime five days later, the fire was 85 percent contained and 36 structures had been destroyed. The fire had spread to 4,270 acres, but fire crews expected to have it completely contained by Tuesday evening. Pirie was relatively upbeat on Tuesday morning, heaping praise on Cal Fire for helping the area to "dodge a bullet" with its timely and massive response.

"I was really touched by the long lines of fire trucks and fire crews driving towards Corralitos from Los Angeles, Redding, San Bruno and Oakland," says Pirie. "It kind of choked me up just to see all these people coming to help us so quickly. It was horrible for the people who lost their homes, but the quick response by California's fire crews ensured there was as little damage as there was."

Crunch Time

Santa Cruz County's bean counters are finding themselves in an unenviable position this year. In the wake of falling property values and a stalled economy, the number crunchers have had to look for ways to trim millions of dollars and dozens of jobs from the county's 2008-2009 budget, even as demand for government services grows. It must be enough to make even a levelheaded math whiz cringe, especially since services to the poorest county residents will be hardest hit.

The Health Department and the Human Services Department received the biggest blows in the initial budget, which could still be tweaked considerably when public hearings open on June 16. As of now, the Health Department will lose 117 of its employees and $7.7 million from its budget, representing a 6.5 percent cut from last year. Human Services will have to make do with 69 fewer staff members and a kitty shrunken by $5.1 million--a 5 percent decrease from last year--if the cuts are implemented. The combined $13.8 million and 182 positions is a sizeable chunk of all proposed cuts; overall, $18.6 million and more than 219 positions are on the chopping block, a nearly 5 percent reduction from last year's budget.

The fact that services to the poor, veterans, mentally handicapped and homeless have been slashed so severely might make the supervisors and accountants who drew up the budget seem like the Scrooges of summer. Not so, says District 5 Supervisor Mark Stone, long a champion of extending welfare services. Stone says the real culprits are proposed cuts at the federal and state level.

The governor proposed slashing at least $627 million in Health and Human Services in his "May Revision" of the state budget, according to the County Administrative Office.

Meanwhile, negotiations at the federal level are taking place against the backdrop of a Bush administration proposal to cut federal Medicaid funds by $17.4 billion over the next five years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

These cuts all trickle down to Santa Cruz County. Local funding only provides about 12 percent of the Health Department's budget and less than half of the Human Service Agency's budget. So when the state and federal government reduce their contributions, services in those departments plummet.

Furthermore, state and federal officials often treat local municipalities like teenagers: sling burgers at McDonald's for a few months, they seem to say, save up and Daddy will help pay for that shiny new car. The same thing happens with the county. If local officials can just scrounge up enough to partially pay for a program, Uncle Sugar and Papa Schwarzenegger will cover the rest of the costs. Stone says 1 dollar raised through local revenue sources can bring in 10 or more dollars from state and federal grants. That means every dollar not contributed by the county has a multiplier as well.

"A lot of the cuts to Human and Health Services mean we end up losing not only dollars but the ability to leverage," Stone explains. "Sometimes one [county] dollar can bring in 10 or even 70 [state or federal] dollars. So the cuts in those departments are really amplified because those programs are no longer able to leverage extra dollars."

Stone notes that the severity of these cuts shouldn't concern just bleeding-heart liberals. For instance, deep cuts to mental health services will show up in a heavier burden on the sheriffs.

"We need to be investing in some of the programs that stave off huge problems both for the community and for expenses down the line," says Stone. "If these folks end up in the jail and court systems it becomes far, far more expensive than the prevention programs. So we're potentially creating a future problem for our community by cutting back these programs."

Water Talk

A drier-than-expected spring is making water officials around the county nervous, meaning water conservation may once again become an official mantra over the summer months. But dirty cars and dry geraniums may be just a hint of what's to come. Global warming and a growing population will present much larger problems for the state's water supply. On Thursday, May 29, Dr. Brent Haddad of UCSC's Center for Integrated Water Research will present his strategy for sharing this most precious of natural resources to the May meeting of Santa Cruz Next. The meeting takes place at 6:30pm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 1305 East Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz.

Cliff's Notes 4 the Vote
For those readers who have not been toting around a dog-eared copy our May 14 issue and memorizing our endorsements, we submit a cheatsheet for Tuesday's primary election:

  • State Assembly District 27 (Democratic primary): Bill Monning
  • Proposition 98 (eminent domain, rent control elimination): No
  • Proposition 99 (eminent domain reform): Yes
  • County Supervisor District 1: John Leopold
  • County Supervisor District 2: Ellen Pirie
  • County Supervisor District 5: Mark Stone
  • Measure Q (Scotts Valley school bond): Yes
  • Measure R (county library sales tax): Yes
  • Measure S (Ben Lomond Fire District): Yes

    Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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