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Imperial Valley Update: H1N1 Vaccines, Unemployment, All-American Canal

Audio

Aired 11/23/09

How are residents and public officials in the Imperial Valley handling the demand for swine flu vaccines? What kind of impact is the decline in property and sales taxes having on governments in the Imperial County? We speak to Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press, about the top stories in his area.

— DOUG MYRLAND (Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re starting off today with an update on news from the Imperial Valley. Our guest is a man who keeps track of Imperial Valley news for a living, Brad Jennings. He’s the editor of the Imperial Valley Press. And, Brad, we’re glad you could be with us today.

BRAD JENNINGS (Editor, Imperial Valley Press): Good morning. Nice to be with you.

MYRLAND: Well, let’s start off with the big picture question: How is the economy out in the Imperial Valley doing these days?

JENNINGS: Well, it’s not setting any positive records, I’ll tell you that. I think that we’re starting to see a little bit of movement but when I tell you a couple of the numbers, it won’t sound like it’s a lot of movement or anything necessarily that positive. Our unemployment rate is actually – has actually dropped in October down to 30%. Now I know that sounds horrific but when you consider that just a couple of months ago it was 33%, it is going in the right direction and we expect that to continue to drop as we move into the season with more farm work, you know, more lettuce, more of the vegetable farming and all that. We need more people. So you’ll continue to see that number definitely drop.

MYRLAND: Brad, just to give our listeners some context, even in the very, very best of times you were looking at unemployment rates in the Imperial Valley, what, around 17, 18%?

JENNINGS: Absolutely. And it’s the same in other farm economies in our region like Yuma, Arizona. It’s – you often see these kinds of double digit numbers just because of what our economy is really driven by and that is farms. So those jobs are very seasonal. They’re very transient. So we definitely generally have high unemployment rates. And when we had the big construction boom a few years ago, that helped bring a lot more jobs here and a lot of people moved from farms to those jobs but those jobs have dried up at least for now, so you’re definitely seeing those numbers higher.

MYRLAND: And to give folks an idea of the rhythm of the jobs in the Valley, now is the season when you begin to see more harvest. The lettuce harvest is after the first of the year, right?

JENNINGS: Yes, it is. A lot of the winter vegetables are now in and we’ll see a ton of harvesting going on around here. You know, we have a sugar plant out here and in the winter and spring you’ll see that get chocking up and it’ll – it has quite a unique smell as you drive up 86 between Imperial and Brawley. And lots of trucks dropping off the sugar beets and lots of people out working in the fields so that definitely is – you’re right, the word rhythm is a good word because we really go into a very fast paced work rhythm here over the next number of months.

MYRLAND: Well, you mentioned the construction boom. That really leads us nicely to our next question about the housing market there. During the construction boom, cleared off a little farmland out there and built a lot of tract houses and now those home values are declining, right?

JENNINGS: They are declining. And even worse, you have situations so like the City of Brawley finds itself in where they have a subdivision with a couple of completed homes, a number of homes that are not quite completed but there is zero infrastructure, no sewers, no roads, no sidewalks, nothing. And so now a couple of people had bought homes and moved in there but they’re now gone and you just have these empty, brand new homes sitting there that they may have to even tear down because the developers went belly-up and there’s no money for infrastructure. And it’s a very, very bad situation. You obviously have a lot of foreclosures as well, which has kept the inventory fairly high. But I’ll tell you what, if you want to buy, now is a good time.

MYRLAND: Do the cities such as Brawley or El Centro or Calexico have the means to do something about that lack of infrastructure or do they just have to wait until times get better and a developer comes in and puts in the sewers and the streets and finishes the project?

JENNINGS: Well, I think they’re going to have to wait. You know, this is a very, very difficult time for cities, for the county. You know, the city of El Centro, which is very well positioned and probably financially the strongest city we have, they had a budgeted surplus but, you know, tax revenues have been down, you know, sales taxes from property taxes. You know, the state is taking a little bit more money, borrowing some money from the suspension of this Proposition 1A, so that leaves them, you know, in a little bit of a hole early in the fiscal year. And I think all of our cities will see that, so money is very, very tight. The county’s money is very tight. So I think they’ll wait for developers, they’ll try to pursue this in court if they can but that also costs money. So I think it’s going to be a little bit of a wait-and-see.

MYRLAND: And you said that El Centro really probably has the budget that’s in the best shape of all the cities in the Valley. Is that maybe because of retail? Because of the regional mall there and a little more sales tax?

JENNINGS: I think it’s because of two things. I think that is definitely one of them; I think the mall has been a huge help. I also think the city has been very conservative in what they’ve done. They’ve been very smart about their budgeting. They’ve seen this coming. They’ve tried to budget accordingly. They’ve not filled some empty positions. They’ve done a lot of things well, and that makes a difference in these kinds of times. But you’re right about the sales tax. You know, it’s interesting. My wife and I go over to the mall to shop or go to one of the restaurants over there and they’re packed. They’re packed all the time. The mall does a good business. We have a center right next to the mall that does very good business with the Best Buys and the Petcos and all those places. So there is still people out shopping and that obviously has a lot to do with the people who live in Mexicali, just across the border from us. So, definitely, that mall is still popping. The restaurants there are doing pretty well, so that’s definitely some positive news.

MYRLAND: Now you’ve been covering the story of the swine flu in your newspaper, and how are our people in Imperial County, how are healthcare providers dealing with the shortage of the vaccine?

JENNINGS: Well, you know, they’re dealing with it the best they can. They gave it to preschoolers early on and, as a matter of fact, the demand wasn’t as great as I think some people thought. They had a lottery to get it out to elementary school students.

MYRLAND: Now that’s an interesting concept.

JENNINGS: It is. Well, when you only have a certain number of shots and more people who could potentially get it, you have to come up with a plan, and that’s the plan they came up with. And it seemed to work pretty well. They’ve also gotten into the high schools. I think the interesting thing that we’ve seen here, you know, in the spring there was a big push of swine flu news and we had some people here that got ill very early on, as a matter of fact. So it was – it wasn’t a panic but it was definitely top of mind. And now we’re seeing people – the vaccine is starting to get out there. It’s in people’s minds but it is not nearly gripping people the way that it did, I would say, in the spring.

MYRLAND: Now, your newspaper is working in partnership with a newspaper in Mexicali, which is a very large city right across the border there, to cover issues related to that H1N1 virus. Can you tell us a little bit about how the folks in Mexico are approaching the virus?

JENNINGS: You know, we are partnering with La Cronica, a newspaper just across the border of Mexicali, which is a city of a little over a million people. And it’s interesting to – we’ve had some editorial meetings and our discussions and their discussions, they’re seeing a lot the same thing. They’re seeing people not nearly as panicked about it this time as they were before. But they’re like us, they believe that it’s going to become more and more important and especially the way that things are handled in Mexico. They do not have the vaccine right now; we do. But we have a lot of people that come across the border back and forth every day so we’re doing this joint venture just to kind of work in cooperation here so we can kind of show the picture on both sides of the border.

MYRLAND: Speaking of the vaccine, do health agencies in Mexico have the vaccine? Are they getting it from the same sources that we are? Or are they using the same kinds of vaccines?

JENNINGS: I think they’re using the same kinds of vaccines. I don’t know that they’re getting much of it at all as of right now, at least that’s the story that we’re getting from the people we’re working with in Mexicali. I don’t have a very clear and firm picture exactly yet of what they’re going to be doing in Mexico. I know they do take it very seriously. They’re very good with their response times, especially in Mexicali. So we’re expecting their response to be very good, especially for the people in this region.

MYRLAND: Now just to, again, to give a little context to our listeners, it’s unusual for, I think, the people in the United States to think of the dichotomy between having a city of a million people in Mexicali across from a community of maybe 150,000 total if you added up everything in the Imperial Valley.

JENNINGS: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Do you foresee more kinds of cross-border partnerships because of that huge population and the changing economy?

JENNINGS: Well, you see quite a bit of it now. It’s interesting that we are very linked, the Mexicali Valley and the Imperial Valley. I think it’s linked through families, it’s linked through business, it’s linked through commerce, I mean in so many different ways. You have American companies just across the border that have people from our side of the border crossing south to Mexico to work. You have people from Mexico crossing over here to work every day. It’s very, very common, and I think that will continue. Our partnership will continue. I think immigration is an interesting issue obviously everywhere. Here, it’s especially, and something we take great interest in because it affects our lives every day. We want people to move across the border as freely and as safely as they can while keeping our borders secure because they matter to us for commerce, for family, for everything. So I think you will definitely continue to see cooperation.

MYRLAND: Well, and I asked that question when I did here because I want to set up a little context for the next subject, which is immigration and the All American Canal, and I just wanted to give everybody an idea that immigration is a multi-dimension kind of question for all of you. It’s people crossing the border and moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico is a part of everyday life there yet you have a defined population of people who are trying to come across the border illegally and one way they’re doing it—one thing they have to do when they do that—is to cross the All American Canal and…

JENNINGS: Right.

MYRLAND: …that’s caused a bit of a controversy there, right?

JENNINGS: It is, and it has for years. You know, those of us who grew up in this region, you know, we grew up with the All American Canal and people, unfortunately, swimming in it and drowning in it often. It’s a very, very common thing here. The interesting thing is, you know, the canal was just recently lined and the water that is saved through that lining is being sent to San Diego. But that lining has made the water maybe move a little bit faster and it’s made it possibly, according to some, a little harder to climb out of. And there are escape ladders every so often in there but there are a number of activists, including John Hunter, whose brother Duncan Hunter is very well known in San Diego, that say that more should be done. We should have buoys stretched across it, there should be more escape ladders, there should be other safety measures. And, of course, that comes down to cost. It comes down to who is responsible for that cost. But on the other side of it, you also have people that say, well, if you weren’t trying to enter this country illegally and swim across the canal, you wouldn’t drown. Now that may sound harsh but if you’re doing an illegal activity and it, unfortunately, gets you killed through a decision you made on your own, who needs to pay for safety? Isn’t that something that you should just not do?

MYRLAND: Are there warning signs?

JENNINGS: You know, I believe there are. To tell you the truth, I don’t go out to the All American Canal that often. There are, and I know there are programs to keep people out and there are some escape ladders and they definitely do things to try to keep people out, however, when people are desperate, they’re coming over for jobs, they will do just about anything to get here. And, unfortunately, sometimes that leads to their death.

MYRLAND: Your newspaper recently editorialized about it and, if I can simplify the editorial, I think you basically said enough is enough. We have ladders, we’ve had programs, everybody’s known about this for many years, there’s a limit to how much you can protect people from themselves.

JENNINGS: There is, and I think what happens is, you know, we see lawsuits with this. The Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, they’re tied up in lawsuits that are just ongoing over the safety issue. And we understand it and we don’t want anybody to die. Any human life, we don’t want to lose. But is enough ever going to be enough? You know, we even said if they encase the entire canal, that probably still wouldn’t be enough for some people. There is such a thing as personal responsibility and sometimes bad choices lead to bad consequences.

MYRLAND: I have one final question for you and that’s about the San Diego State University Imperial Valley campus. I understand that there’ve been some candlelight vigils and some demonstrations objecting to the enrollment reductions there. That’s something that’s happening statewide in all the CSU campuses.

JENNINGS: Right.

MYRLAND: What’s unique about what’s going on there in the Imperial Valley?

JENNINGS: I think what’s unique here is options. We don’t – local students don’t have a lot of options. You have Imperial Valley College, which is a fine two-year school. And then you have the San Diego State University Imperial Valley campus in Calexico, and that’s it. And I think a lot of students want to use this, the small university here, they want to get their degree here, they want to stay close to home, close to family, continue to work if they can. So when you cut enrollment—and I understand it’s being mandated everywhere, we get that—but when you’re talking about dropping the enrollment here 11.6%, for us that’s about 110 full and part-time students for the 2010-2011 school year, it really has an impact on people. And so it has a larger impact here than you would see on the large university level because you’re talking about so many more students. You know, here it’s very local, very centralized, and I think there’s a concern that it’s going to unfairly hit some people here because they may not be able to afford to go to a campus somewhere else.

MYRLAND: Well, and your other choices are more than 100 miles away.

JENNINGS: Exactly, exactly.

MYRLAND: Well, Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press, thank you very much for being with us.

JENNINGS: Absolutely. You’re welcome. Great talking to you.

MYRLAND: And a good shout out to all our friends out there in the Imperial Valley. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh.

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