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July 25-August 1, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Pajama Games

Apparently pulling all-nighters doesn't end with college. Members of the California State Assembly gulped down any stimulants in sight as they put what they thought were the finishing touches on the state budget in the wee hours of July 20. The Assembly approved the budget, which was over a month late, around 4am with a vote of 56-23. With procrastination like that, it's a wonder any of these folks made it through finals week in college.

Everyone let out a collective sigh of relief until the next morning, when Senate Republicans demanded more cuts be made to eliminate any deficit. With Democratic senators queasy about any further trimming, another budget deadlock was on. Republican lawmakers are drawing up an alternative proposal, and negotiations will restart on July 25.

In spite of the negotiations, Nuz saw fit to sniff out a few of the consequences that, as of presstime, the Assembly version of the budget could have for Santa Cruz County.

First off, Santa Cruz METRO may have to put a number of its future plans on hold, as it faces a nearly $3.1 million cut in operating funds this year. According to General Manager Les White, this means 10 diesel-fueled buses may not be replaced with cleaner-burning natural gas–fueled buses as mandated by the California Air Resources Board. The $12 million Pacific Avenue station upgrade will probably not happen anytime soon, and an operations building planned for the Harvey West Neighborhood may have to wait.

Santa Cruz METRO is not alone. The state redirected over $1.2 billion in taxes on gas pumps from public transit funds to the General Fund to pay for school buses and disabled transit services and paying down previous transportation bond debts.

College students will also be taking a hit in the wallet, as the Assembly decided to buy out neither the governor's 10 percent increase in undergraduate tuition for California State University students nor his 7 percent increase in UC tuition. The Assembly paid for these increases last year. There is a silver lining, though: some of the money will be redirected toward financial aid, including a $16 million increase in Cal Grants. Finally, at least one program used frequently in the Santa Cruz area was saved from the governor's ax this year. The Assembly was able to ensure payments to farm owners will continue under the Williamson Act, a law that reduces property taxes through county subsidies to farmers who agree not to sell their land to housing developers. So at least something's sacred.

Fortitude of Knox

Having reported two weeks ago ("Painless Plan?" July 11) on the unusual cordiality that General Plan Advisory Committee members said blossomed through the two-year Santa Cruz General Plan process, Nuz decided to check whether the collegial feel was surviving post-partum. And so we ended up drifting quietly into the background at the Monday afternoon celebration the city held for GPAC members.

It certainly appeared peaceful in the grassy back yard of the Mission on School Street, temporarily adorned with large round tables and chairs. And in those chairs, pairs of people who could normally be expected to grind their teeth at the quietest mention of each other's names were sitting together grinning and stretching—two universal signs of genuine relaxation.

The pink lemonade and the warm feelings flowed as Mayor Emily Reilly called up each GPAC member and handed out the certificates of thanks. Nearly all of GPAC's 17 members attended—itself an unusual occurrence—and came up to receive them.

Each GPACer had something brief to say, but perhaps the most emotionally textured moment came when the plan process consultant, Naphtali Knox, stepped forward as the last award recipient.

An unassuming man who's earned his gray hair, Knox—a 50-year planning sage who wrestled into being one of the nation's first rural growth management plans in Petaluma, created a Santa Clara County housing trust fund that's built over 10,000 low- and moderate-income homes, won the top U.S. planning organization's award as nationally Distinguished Leader and to top it all off underwent open heart surgery early in the Santa Cruz city process, yet continued to serve —began with a joke.

"I was a young man," he said, pausing for effect while rolling his summer hat in his hand, "when this started."

But then Knox' tone grew intimate. "This is the most fun I've had in my entire career," he said. "I was challenged more often, both by committee members and people from the community, than I've ever been before. And that made it the most fun of any process in which I've participated. So thank you."

The garden party ended with a group perusal of the spectacular view from the Mission—city Clock Tower to the left, rising hills to the right, a plume of high fog pouring over Moss Landing in the center, and beyond it, the blue indistinct hills of Monterey.

Driving away, we caught one more glimpse of Knox, hat still in hand, walking toward his car to drive home to Palo Alto, stepping with the gentle, self-contained confidence of someone who's just completed a very fine thing.

Beam Me Up

Remember how easy it was for Star Trek Enterprise crew members to sniff out hidden dangers in the atmosphere? Just whip out the tricorder, push some buttons and wait for the right series of beeps. So easy, so science fiction—or not.

This kind of device, or at least one with similar characteristics, may be on the market for health care and environmental specialists in the next decade or so, and the seed of the technology will be traceable to the nearby electrical engineering lab of UCSC associate professor Holger Schmidt.

Over the last four years, Schmidt and colleague Aaron Hawkins of Brigham Young University (the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways) have perfected a way of identifying individual particles. First the particle is immersed into liquid containing antibodies that mark given entities—say, nasty viruses or pollutants—with fluorescent tags. The liquid is routed into the core of the chip, and then light is in turn routed through it; if the light reacts to the fluorescent tag on the particle, a beam will bounce down a separate channel and the user will know he or she has a match. Bird flu! Benzene! You get the picture.

"What we're trying to do is to combine the convenience of integrated optics, which is routing light on a chip, with microfluidics, which is routing liquid on a chip," says Schmidt. "We want to try to do both at the same time. Microfluidics has been around for 10 to 20 years, but over the last two to five years the new combination has really started to take off."

Schmidt and team will continue refining the chip and have no plans to apply their breakthrough to a specific product yet, so it's unclear how the final product will really compare to a tricorder. But some type of hand-held sensor is definitely within the realm of possibility. While Schmidt says product development isn't his department, he isn't shy about predicting future uses in microbiology for the little chips most folks associate with computer processors.

First up is a collaboration with UCSC Biology professor Harry Noller, who has expressed interest in using the chip to isolate and analyze a single biomolecule. Noller hopes this process will allow further insights into the transfer of genetic information from DNA to protein. But this may be just the first application for his small and innovative technology.

"Hopefully this will be ideal for point-of-care applications in a doctor's office or your home, " says Schmidt, "or in places like underdeveloped countries where it's hard to lug around a $100,000 microscope that can see a single molecule. If we can do that on a small, 1-inch-by-1-inch chip, you could carry it around and be much quicker in your response."

That leaves Nuz with only one question: Who's working on the transporter?

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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