Monday, September 13, 2010
Why are Calexico cops being asked to help clean the police station bathroom? And, why are leaders in Brawley hoping to turn two new housing developments into redevelopment zones? We speak to the editor of the Imperial Valley Press about the hot topics in that community.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's been a tough year so far for the folks in Imperial County. Not only are they suffering through recession and high unemployment, but they're also still working to repair damage from the 7.2 magnitude Easter earthquake. Even so, Imperial County residents are coming up with some innovative and unorthodox ways to cope with hard times and tight budgets. Joining us with a roundup of headlines from Imperial County is my guest, Brad Jennings. He’s editor of the Imperial Valley Press. Brad, good morning.
BRAD JENNINGS (Editor, Imperial Valley Press): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s start with the unorthodox. Why is there a picture in your paper of police officers in Calexico cleaning their own bathroom in the police station?
JENNINGS: Well, you know, they say a picture speaks a thousand words, and that picture is definitely worth it. Because of budget cuts, they lost the custodian there and so officers and other people in the city have to kind of take matters into their own hands, as it were, and clean up their own restrooms and take care of their own buildings.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of a budget deficit is Calexico dealing with right now?
JENNINGS: Well, Calexico is in the $5 million range. And they, you know, they’ve done the things that they have to do and that includes, unfortunately, cutting some people, obviously cutting in other areas. But when that happens, you know, you have to – everybody has to kind of lend a hand and we’re definitely seeing that happen there, including police officers. I think the problem some people have with it is, for example, when we ran this story, this one officer who actually is pictured cleaning a bathroom was one of three officers apparently on duty and so he wasn’t on the streets, he was actually in cleaning the bathroom.
CAVANAUGH: Well, what other cuts have the – has the city been forced to make as a result of this deficit?
JENNINGS: Oh, they’ve cut things across the board. I mean, they’ve cut people, they’ve cut hours. You know, you’ll definitely see some service differences and I don’t think that’s anything that can be avoided. When you have these kinds of budget situations, they have to do something about them so people, services, those things are going to suffer.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand that the residents of Calexico may not be very happy that this lavatory cleanup duty is taking an officer off the street. How are the police officers themselves dealing with it?
JENNINGS: The police officers themselves, as you can imagine, are very unhappy about it. They feel like that this is something that they’re not supposed to be doing. They should be out working the streets, they should be out protecting people, doing the job that they were hired to do and, instead, they’re playing custodian. You know, there’s two trains of thought on that. That is one of them, and the other is, you know, everybody has to pitch in during tough times and do the best they can do.
CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking about unorthodox and creative ways to deal with the recession, we move to Brawley now. They’re trying – Leaders in Brawley are seeking to turn two recently built housing subdivisions—and these are pretty nice housing subdivisions—into redevelopment zones. Tell us about that.
JENNINGS: Well, you know, it’s a very interesting situation. As a matter of fact, we were talking about it in the newsroom and we can’t remember this ever happening before. These are housing developments that were built three, four years ago, brand new homes, as you said, nice homes. Matter of fact, we interviewed one family that paid more than $340,000 for their home two and a half years ago. The problem is, is when the economy went bad these developers just kind of jumped out of these projects and left the city, the homeowners, everybody kind of holding the bag. And the problem is, streets weren’t finished, streetlights weren’t finished, sidewalks weren’t finished, some sewage projects weren’t finished. So one of these subdivisions, the Lucky Ranch, is completely abandoned. We have brand new homes that are just there to be vandalized now and they are completely abandoned because now the work has not been finished. The city has gone after some of these developers, they’ve sued, they’ve tried to get money but the only way they might be able to do it is basically get these redevelopment agency funds to kind of get everything finished so they can get these houses done and get all the extra infrastructure work done and get people into these homes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, redevelopment funds normally go to areas that are considered run down and blighted and so forth.
CAVANAUGH: How – Can Brawley leaders, do they think they can actually use these funds to help these areas?
JENNINGS: They do. Excuse me. They do believe they can use these funds to help people. And you’re right, and that’s the odd thing about this, you know, usually these monies go for older kind of downtrodden areas of a city, places that really need an economic boost. These are brand new housing developments and they do fall into this category but, you know, this could bring millions of dollars over a number of years that they could use to go toward these waste water facilities, water facilities, repairs, all those kinds of things. So they do think they can do it. It’s going to cost about $180,000 up front for the city to do it but in the long run it could certainly be worth it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Brad Jennings, editor of the Imperial Valley Press and we’re getting an update on the headlines from Imperial County. Now, Brad, a funny thing happened recently when one of your reporters was covering the budget discussion in Imperial County. Sounds like the county board passed a budget this year after only holding one public meeting on the subject. One of your reporters actually decided to read through the budget and what did she find?
JENNINGS: Well, she found about an $80 million mistake, which, coming from a journalist, is funny, you know, because one thing we’re not known for is our math skills necessarily. We’re a bunch of English majors. But, you know, she did something that apparently the county board didn’t do, she read the budget. And when you – she found a department that their budget went from $1.3 million or something like that to more than $80 million. And she – that raised a red flag for her, so she brought it up to the county CEO and said, what’s going on here? And he said, oops, that’s a mistake. But surprisingly to us, the county board themselves didn’t catch this. It certainly makes people wonder if they’re really paying attention to the budget, really reading these things over. If a young reporter—she’s a year out of journalism school and she’s a very, very hard worker, very smart, Elizabeth Varin is the reporter’s name. She just spent the time to read the document.
CAVANAUGH: She didn’t know enough to ignore it.
JENNINGS: And she didn’t know enough to ignore it, that’s exactly right.
JENNINGS: I wish more people didn’t know enough.
CAVANAUGH: Now did the county have to do some cutting or anything in order to make up this difference?
JENNINGS: Well, they definitely had to cut out that $80 million and it took their budget from, you know, more than $550 million down to about $475 million, so it definitely made a difference. And, you know, the funny thing for us is, you know, we get on the county, we get on all elected officials and government entities from time to time. That’s what newspapers do. So they’re – they don’t necessarily look at us as their best friends and they certainly didn’t give us much credit here but they did make the adjustment.
CAVANAUGH: Now let’s get back to, as I mentioned in my opening, is the fact that you’re – Imperial County is still dealing with the after-effects of this huge earthquake…
CAVANAUGH: …at Eastertime. Tell us what’s still going on in trying to clean up and repair after the Easter Sunday earthquake.
JENNINGS: You know, if you drive around town, you can see a lot of places where there is still construction going on. There are still some buildings that are being completely redone. There are some buildings that are still blocked off. We have some local roads that are still closed because of problems, at least one main road that is closed because of problems. And it’s mainly waiting for money. Now we did get kind of an infusion of money from the federal government last week, especially for Calexico schools, which were very, very hard hit. The entire Imperial Valley’s going to get about almost $11 million and a lot of that is going down to Calexico for their schools.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, when is that – when are you going to see that money actually?
JENNINGS: Well, this is the federal government we’re talking about. No one here is holding their breath but it looks like we’re into the process so, hopefully, it’s not going to be until we’re all dead and gone.
CAVANAUGH: Now what are the – what is the Calexico School District doing now? Where are kids getting their education if they can’t go back into the schools?
JENNINGS: Well, they’ve had to move some people around and certainly make some adjustments. We haven’t had any real complaints though since school has been back, so it looks like everything is okay for now. Everybody’s kind of making do. You know, you have to put people in places they’re not used to and move some things around and use your resources in a different way but they seem to be getting that done. So this money will be great, though, to help them get everything rebuilt and get kids back to where they need to be.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Brad, since we talked, there was a big step forward for the Sunrise Powerlink project…
CAVANAUGH: The Cleveland National Forest gave an okay for the route to go through that area, and I’m wondering what reaction there is in Imperial County to the idea that this project really does look now, you know, there are some pending lawsuits but it looks like it’s going to go forward.
JENNINGS: Yes, the pending lawsuits, that’s almost our story around here…
JENNINGS: …in Imperial Valley is impending lawsuits. I think people are ready for it, the people who were paying attention. I think basically the rank and file person here is not paying that much attention to it. But for people who are and people who are focused on renewable energy and people who are really focused on the economic growth of the Imperial Valley understand its importance. I mean, this is going to be a real center for green energy and for these projects we have that are in the pipe, you know, from wind projects to solar projects to more geothermal projects, this is a very, very important step. We need a way to transmit that green power out of here, and the Sunrise Powerlink is certainly a huge part of that.
CAVANAUGH: And when it comes to jobs for Imperial County, if, indeed, there was, okay, a go-ahead on this Powerlink, how quickly could jobs – could construction start happening and jobs start happening for the Imperial County?
JENNINGS: Well, you know, that’s still a bit of a process. You know, there are environmental impact process, lots of reports that have to be done. You know, we have some very, very large projects that are kind of in the pipeline now but those things are going to take a year or two years, three years, to get done. But having this start to move forward, will, I think, loosen things up a little bit. We do need the jobs now. We may have to wait for them a little bit but when they come, we’ll definitely need them and we’ll be happy to have them.
CAVANAUGH: And, finally, Brad, you know, Imperial Valley is cooling off slightly, I would imagine.
JENNINGS: Yeah, slightly.
CAVANAUGH: What is this time of year? What’s it like out in Imperial Valley this time of year?
JENNINGS: You know, this time of year is the time of year that’s probably almost the most frustrating because, you know, last week we had a few days dip into the upper nineties which, for us, is almost like a winter day.
JENNINGS: We’re very thrilled about that. The evenings are starting to cool off a little bit. Our highs this week are probably going to be 104 to 105 but after, you know, 113s, 114s consistently, it’s nice. And the good thing about it is, I live very close to Bucklin Park, which is a beautiful park in El Centro, and I love to go down there and walk. When it’s too hot, you can’t. Well, I was out this weekend walking and it was flooded with people. It’s great to see people out again, enjoying things. You don’t just spontaneously combust when you walk out of your house so it’s actually pretty nice.
CAVANAUGH: Fall’s around the corner, right?
JENNINGS: That it is.
CAVANAUGH: Brad, thank you so much.
JENNINGS: You’re welcome. Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Brad Jennings is editor of the Imperial Valley Press. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a focus on street gangs in San Diego County. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.