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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Obama's sister visits Santa Cruz, the city breaks open its piggy bank and the county turns tiny roads over to homeowners.

The Dirt on Obama

Issues, schmissues. Barack Obama's political philosophy has taken center stage in recent months, but Nūz remains curious about the embarrassing little details of the candidate's life. Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half-sister, will hopefully be dishing the dirt when she visits Santa Cruz on Thursday, June 19. Inquiring minds want to know all about Obama's naughty childhood pranks, awkward first date and the other quirky items of trivia only a sister would know.

Of course, Soetoro-Ng is sweeping into town with more serious aims in mind. She'll be visiting two Santa Cruz County Democratic clubs to rally the troops, gather money and talk about why her brother is best situated to steer this troubled nation back on a respectable course. She shouldn't have too much trouble finding support around these parts, but this promises to be an informative event even for Obama converts. In a recent Vibe magazine interview, Soetoro-Ng said Obama's history of cross-cultural immersion, both in Indonesia and in the cosmopolitan city of Honolulu, will help him lead the country in an increasingly interconnected world.

"As a consequence of being from Hawaii, he's been able to negotiate a variety of cultures, to move gracefully and seamlessly between worlds," she says. "He sees culture and identity in complex ways."

Needless to say, that will be quite a shift from the current White House resident.

MAYA SOETORO-NG speaks Thursday, June 19, at 5:30pm at Jalisco's, 618 Main St., Watsonville, and at 7pm at Louden Nelson Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. Free admission to both events.

Private Parts to Remain So

An octagonal sign posted on the bathroom door of the 41st Avenue Cinema, which alarmingly reads "Warning! This property is under video surveillance by day/night cameras. All activity is being recorded," has got customers believing someone is watching them while they answer nature's call.

So much that a man named Tim Rumford wrote a short article about the sign and posted it on SantaCruzIndyMedia's website. Taking the sign seriously, he wrote that there may be hidden cameras in the bathroom.

Concerned, we confronted theater staff about the sign. They said they had a problem with tagging, so they pointed one of those supermarket black-globe cameras at the men's room door so they could watch who came and went. Clearly a crucial distinction.

$13 Million Saved, $13 Million Earned

The City of Santa Cruz may have dodged a bullet this year. It faces the grim prospect of a $5 million deficit in the 2009 fiscal year, the product of a slumping economy and high fuel costs. But surprisingly, no cuts to parks programs or social services were on the table during the Monday, June 16, budget hearings. Thanks to a hefty reserve fund and an upcoming ballot on emergency dispatch fees, the City Council was able to glide through its first reading of the 2009 budget--which totaled over $205 million--ahead of schedule and with hardly any debate.

The main reason the city is able to hold spending steady during such a downturn: $13 million in reserves, more than enough to weather a $5 million shortfall. Little is expected to change when the city finalizes its budget on July 8.

That means cuts to services this year will be minimal. The Police Department will cut its payroll by seven officers and the parks maintenance team will lose five members. The Fire Department will have to wait another year, at least, to get that shiny new rig. But that's about it. Despite technically being $5 million in the red, this is considered a "status quo budget" by the city manager's office.

Naturally, the city would rather not put a $5 million dent in its reserves in just one year. If things are looking bad in December, the council may consider additional cuts. However, city officials are hoping summer tourism will be stronger than projected, bringing in more revenue from sales taxes, and that the housing market will pep up and boost property taxes. Assistant City Manager Martin Bernal is among the majority that thinks it would be wise to see if cuts are really necessary before breaking out the scissors.

"It doesn't really make sense to fire someone and then a few months later find out there actually was money to pay them and ask for them to come back," he said. "It's just not a good way of doing business."

There is also the real possibility that the city could see more than $1 million of that deficit disappear by September, due to the confusing circumstances surrounding the 911 fee. This fee is tacked onto all phone bills to pay for emergency dispatching service. It only costs $3.49 per month in Santa Cruz, and was an exceptionally boring political topic until the California First District Appeals Court struck down a similar fee charged by Union City in April. The court ruled that the Union City charge for emergency dispatch services was a tax, not a fee, and therefore required the consent of two-thirds of the voters. In Santa Cruz, no election on the fee has ever been held, so the $1.3 million a year it brings the city could be threatened by a copycat lawsuit. That means the money technically has to be considered part of the deficit this year. City officials are hoping to get around this problem by having a mail-based election on Aug. 26 to keep the fee at the same level. If two-thirds of the voters approve, the deficit will be $1.3 million lighter. At that point, the city will be only be $3.7 million in the hole.

Lucky for city number crunchers, that cushy $13 million reserve fund can easily absorb either loss. If the economic slump continues through next year, the city could run into problems, but this year it seems that foresight won the day. The moral of the story seems to be simply that saving when times are good saves a lot of pain when times are bad. Just like Grandma always said.

County's Broke, Pave Yourself

The county road system may be getting a tad smaller. Faced with skyrocketing maintenance costs and dwindling gas tax revenues (they're not tied to the actual cost of gas), the Board of Supervisors is considering whether or not to hand over responsibility for four rural roads to nearby residents. The roads, located in Felton and Boulder Creek, are so small that some are only used by one household. Others lead into gated communities. The county is hoping that residents who use the roads will agree to take over maintenance, which should take at least a little pressure off a public works department that's facing a $100 million-and-growing maintenance backlog. The roads up for consideration are the Saratoga Toll Road, Troy Road, Valley View Avenue and Little Basin Road.

The transfers are part of a broader effort to cope with shrinking funds for road improvements in the unincorporated area. Fifth District Supervisor Mark Stone admits this round of transfers will have a "minimal impact" on the county's 600-mile road system, but he hopes that by taking some of these smaller roads off the county's plate, money can be funneled toward more heavily traveled roads.

"As we're losing money for roads, we're trying to direct the money we do have toward arterial roads," says Stone. "This means the smaller neighborhoods can't always have their problems addressed the way we'd like to see them addressed."

The transfers are one of many creative solutions being explored after a $600 million plan to shore up county transportation infrastructure was killed last February. That plan would have allocated approximately $100 million for repairing local roads.

To put a sunny spin on things, now residents can fix up crumbling roads without waiting for the county to get around to it. The county is also mulling the idea of putting a countywide tax measure on the November ballot to pay for local roads, but with the economy in a nosedive, that might not happen. On the bright side, Santa Cruz County is receiving a one-time allocation of $6 million from the state to fix up local surface roads. Yet even this fact has led to public calls for supervisors to redirect $2 million earmarked to roads in the current budget toward Health and Human Services, which collectively face a $13 million cut this year. District 1 Supervisor Neal Coonerty has already thrown his weight behind this proposal, although no official decision will be made until the end of the month, when budget negotiations have wrapped up.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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