Chumash National Marine Sanctuary Rejected by NOAA… For Now

‘We will look at this situation as a temporary setback for them and continue educating the public as to the many problems associated with a National Sanctuary system,” said Jeremiah O’Brien of the MBCFO. ‘We will be interested in the content of the new proposal as the rejection letter described many of its deficiencies in the area of management, which is the area that has many of us here on the Central Coast concerned.’

In a March 6 letter to Fred Collins of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, promoters of a proposed, new Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the Central Coast, Daniel Basta, Director of of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, stated: “The nomination, as submitted, is not sufficient to more forward with a more detailed review.”

Mr. Collins submitted the nomination seeking national sanctuary status for the Chumash Marine Sanctuary on February 2.

While the proposal in no longer currently eligible of review, Mr. Basta suggests in his letter that Mr. Collins could resubmit his nomination after responding adequately to all the information, national significance criteria and management considerations required by NOAA to move forward.

Responding to the announcement, Jeremiah O’Brien, Director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, said: “It appears the reasons [for rejecting the nomination] were lack of information and incomplete data on the application. The letter of rejection seems to encourage them to resubmit their proposal.

“Many of us have been trying to educate the public as to why it is not a good idea to turn over our ocean and beaches to federal control,” Mr. O’Brien told The ROCK. “We, therefore, will look at this situation as a temporary setback for them and continue educating the public as to the many problems associated with a National Sanctuary system. We will be interested in the content of the new proposal as the rejection letter described many of its deficiencies in the area of management. This is the area that has many of us here on the Central Coast concerned.”

Concluded Mr. O’Brien, “Losing or giving up control of our resources to federal management would be a shame. We believe our community is the best manager and steward or our coast, and our past performance speaks for itself.  We only have to walk outside our door, take a deep breath, look around, and realize we have done well, and we will continue that tradition on our own.”

The Chumash Sanctuary proposal is supported by the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club and District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson.

For more background on the debate surrounding the Chumash Sanctuary, read The ROCK:


For more information on NOAA and the sanctuary nomination process, visit: website:

Morro Bay Surfboard Art Festival Makes Colorful, Creative Waves in November

The First Annual Surfboard Art Festival, organized and promoted by Morro Bay in Bloom, a volunteer-based 501 c(3) organization dedicated to the enhancement of public life in Morro Bay, runs through November with a month-long exhibition and gala-auction finale.

Surfboard-Art1The First Annual Surfboard Art Festival, organized  and promoted by Morro Bay in Bloom, a volunteer-based 501 c(3) organization dedicated to the enhancement of public life in Morro Bay, runs through November with a month-long exhibition and gala-auction finale.

The festival will spotlight 30 pieces of surfboard art, which will be displayed at public locations throughout Morro Bay during November, leading up to an auction of the art on Nov. 29 at the Inn at Morro Bay. Proceeds of the auction will be split between the artists, Project Surf Camp and Morro Bay in Bloom.

The festival features the works of renowned local artists and community groups such as the fifth-grade class of Del Mar Elementary School, three classes of students at Los Osos Middle School, and senior residents of Bayside Care Center and Casa de Flores.

Project Surf Camp, one of the beneficiaries of the auction, is a charitable organization designed to educate individuals with special needs. It uses the beach and surf as a context for helping people with special needs to build self-confidence.

The art pieces will be auctioned on Saturday, Nov. 29, at the Inn at Morro Bay from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., with a VIP preview starting at 1 p.m.

Morro Bay in Bloom (MBIB) is a wholly volunteer 501 c (3) organization whose members are residents of Morro Bay. Approximately 50 members help to restore and maintain public spaces as part of the city’s “Adopt-a-Park” program, among other projects such as the Surfboard Art Festival. MBIB is an affiliate of the national America in Bloom (AIB) program, which sends expert judges to the city annually year to evaluate progress against standard nationwide criteria. The judges’ report constitutes a consulting report on the progress and opportunities of the city.

For more details visit

Catch of the Day: Morro Bay Public Fish Market Opens in November

Come and get ‘em fresh off the boat at a savings – salmon, tuna, rockfish, lingcod, crab – when the Morro Bay Public Fish Market debuts in November in Tidelands Park.

crabsCome and get ‘em fresh off the boat at a savings – salmon, tuna, rockfish, lingcod, crab – when the Morro Bay Public Fish Market debuts in November in Tidelands Park. In a move that could boost tourism and attract fresh-fish-seeking locals, the Morro Bay City Council voted unanimously on August 26 to allow direct-to-the-public, ‘off-the-boat’ fish sales in Morro Bay. The council approved at one-year trail period for the venture. After one year, if the market is deemed successful, it will be continued indefinitely. Modeled after the successful local farmer markets, the fish market will provide a centralized location at Tidelands Park, with its side-tie boat docking, public parking and pedestrian access. According the August 26 city council staff report, “There is potential indirect positive fiscal impact by way of an economically healthier commercial fishing fleet.” Fishermen have been selling fish from their boat slips. The “Fishline” seafood mobile app will be part of an internet-based campaign to spread word of the market and specials to fresh-fish fin-atics. The city hopes the one-stop fish market will help publicize Morro Bay’s “working waterfront, sustainable fishing industry and rich estuarine setting,” and bring more visitors to the bay. Day and time of the first market have yet to be announced. More details should become available later this month.

Chumash Marine Sanctuary Sailing for NOAA Nomination – Without Fishermen on Board

Ironically, the fate of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the Central Coast may well be decided fishermen to fishermen—the heirs of ancient Chumash fishermen that once ruled the ocean versus the working fishermen and harbors of today—and their ability to untangle crossed lines, repair burned bridges and guarantee local control.

Chumash Marine Sanctuary


For more than two decades, creating a Central Coast National Marine Sanctuary has been a major goal of environmentalists seeking to fill the gap between the southern end of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Cambria and the northern end of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary at Santa Barbara.

Now, ironically, the fate of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the Central Coast may well be decided fishermen to fishermen—the heirs of ancient Chumash fishermen that once ruled the bays versus the working fishermen and harbors of today—and their ability to untangle crossed lines, repair burned bridges and guarantee local control.

A well-organized grassroots campaign led by the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, the San Luis Obispo Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and their other partners and participants in the Marine Sanctuary Alliance to establish a marine sanctuary between the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries has propelled their proposal toward nomination for possible future designation as a national sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

At the same time, regulation-weary Morro Bay fishermen have decided not to support the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, even though sanctuary proponents seek no additional regulations on fishing. As a result, though, lack of support by the local fishing community, which has a long and bitter history with the Monterey Bay Sanctuary designation process, could prove to be a critical factor in determining whether the sanctuary is accepted for nomination and seriously considered for future designation.

“We don’t feel another layer of government restrictions in any form is necessary,” Tom Hafer, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization (MBCFO) told The ROCK. “The fishermen of Morro Bay and Avila do not want or need or are in favor of any new sanctuary in the area.”

There have been several unsuccessful efforts over the years to establish a marine sanctuary off the Central Coast by extending the Monterey Bay Sanctuary southward, the Channel Islands Sanctuary northward, or creating of an entirely new, separate sanctuary in the middle that basically connects the two.

Obviously it’s not as simple as it sounds or it would have happened decades ago. Why hasn’t time changed minds? Because, as appealing it may sound to some, as easy as it is for ocean sentinels to embrace, the idea of extending the sanctuaries to the Central Coast belies a host of legal and governmental complications and complexities that threaten to make the journey of the Chumash sanctuary though the NOAA nominating process a stormy passage.

‘The Promise’

When the Monterey Bay Sanctuary (MBNMS) was up for designation in 1992, talks were going on locally and nationally whether to designate it or not. At the time, there was overwhelming opposition to it by the communities of Monterey and Santa Cruz and the commercial fishermen and their organizations, along with those that relied on commercial fishing—unless the sanctuary was going to stay out of the business of fishery management.

Whenever the Monterey Bay Sanctuary designation history is mentioned, based on their years of hard experience, fishermen refer to “The Promise.”

“We were once told by [then-Congressmen] Leon Panetta that there would be no new regulations by the establishment of the MBMS,” said MBCFO director Mark Tognazinni, “but history became an agreed-upon fable and promises have and always will be broken when it comes to sanctuaries.

“So what is the real purpose of this purpose of this proposal? How does it really benefit the Chumash? It is as if there is a need to make the entire ocean some kind of MPA. Just follow the money. It always leads to the truth,” said Tognazinni. “With one exception fishing is NOT ‘unregulated,’ and at least for my 45 years on the ocean, fishing is one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the country.”

When the Monterey Bay Sanctuary was designated, a fairly unanimous consensus was sought amongst all the stakeholders. The fishermen and community where brought on board with “the promise” that the Monterey Bay Sanctuary would not get involved in fishery management or fishery regulation.

MBCFO director Tom Roff has written extensively about fishermen, “the promise” and its impact on creating a new Central Coast sanctuary, on Morro Bay news site SLO Coast Journal, in rebuttal to sanctuary proponents. Wrote Roff in his May 2012 essay, “Bait and Switch? Fishermen’s Difficult Relationship With the Monterey Sanctuary”:

“With new efforts being made by some community members to gather support for an expanded Monterey Sanctuary (MBNMS), or a new ‘central coast sanctuary,’ claims have been heard that the MBNMS has never broken the well-remembered promise made to us fishermen that it would not create regulations that affect us, or otherwise threaten our livelihoods. Central coast fishermen have always wanted a mutually trusting and respectful relationship with the MBNMS, but we have so far been disappointed.

“Has the sanctuary kept this promise over the past 20 years? Most fishermen think that it has not. In recent times high level MBNMS officials have suggested, at public meetings, that fishermen were somehow ‘confused’ by what they heard in the early ’90s. This makes us wonder if NOAA always intended to try and get around the agreement, as soon as the sanctuary was created. Sanctuary officials have also repeatedly claimed that they have never created a fishing regulation, or otherwise harmed the fishing community. Incredibly, this is said during the same time period that the MBNMS called for additional MPAs—fishing closures.

“Fishermen from the west coast and in other parts of the nation have observed what has unfolded with the Monterey Sanctuary’s relationship with the fishing community. It is safe to say that nearly 100% are extremely suspicious and resistive of sanctuary designations for their areas because of these factors. The MBNMS is widely seen as an agency that either doesn’t base its decisions on science, or cherry-picks the science, has significant issues in its public processes, and has broken its promise made to us, in the spirit it was made.”

“The bottom line,” Roff told The ROCK, “is the sanctuary director can change and so do the priorities.”

“Historically, over the years,” said Morro Bay Harbor Director Eric Endersby, “the (Monterey Bay) sanctuary superintendents, and there have been a few of them, have dabbled in fishery management as much as they can and tried to establish marine protected areas and fishery restrictions, and basically, in the words of the fishermen, break the promise.

“The big fear we have as a community and as a fishing community is the affect on commercial fishermen,” Endersby said. “The commercial fishermen are so highly regulated, we are the most regulated fishery pretty much on the planet, with marine protected areas and all the seasons and closed areas, lots of layers of protection both by the state out to three miles, and by the federal government through its regional fishery management councils.”

The other part of ‘the promise,’ according to Endersby, was that the harbors would have a “carve-out,” and wouldn’t be considered in the sanctuary because of industrial activity such as dredging and disposal going on within sanctuary waters “that’s not necessarily in tune with what the sanctuary’s protections typically are. … The sanctuary has historically been another relatively difficult hurdle to get over during the planning and permitting processes, so it’s been a rocky relationship with the sanctuary governance up there and the local fishermen and communities.

“Unfortunately, it’s kind of poisoned the sanctuary waters here on the west coast, and one of the reasons why our fishermen down here in our community have historically stood up so adamantly against sanctuary designations in our waters because we saw the sort of promise getting broken or getting stretched or ignored up north, and basically we didn’t trust the sanctuary governance to keep its promise.”

Fred Collins, tribal administrator of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council based in San Luis Obispo, met with Hafer, MDCFO director Jeremiah O’Brien and Endersby earlier this year about the Chumash Heritage Sanctuary. To gain their support, Collins proposed that the fishers and harbors protect their interests by writing their own parts in the sanctuary bylaws, but it remains unclear, said Enderby, whether that could “functionally” be done under sanctuary designation and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

“Fred Collins and his group seem to think absolutely it can. I just don’t know. I haven’t been deep enough into it,” said Endersby. “From what I understand of it, the designation documents can’t be contrary to the National Marine Sanctuary Act. Whether you can write in ‘the sanctuary shalt not ever do fishery regulation’ or not is (unknown) and that’s the concern, and that’s where the fishermen were looking for an answer, so to speak, and us as a community as well, as a harbor.

“Can the designation documents be crafted in such a way that the harbors remain an isolated entity, that (we maintain) our normal activities like boating and everything we do in the water that may be somewhat in conflict with the national marine sanctuary goals, which is basically trying to keep certain industrial and other uses out of the ocean waters and the ecosystem, that may be in conflict with the act?

“Short of some sort of legal ruling and really exploring what it would mean and how that could be done, it’s tough to say whether Fred’s vision of a sanctuary could occur in the way he thinks it can and we would hope it would be.”

Seismic Testing

In September 2012, in a rare partnership of odd bedfellows, fishermen, environmentalists and concerned individuals joined forces to form C.O.A.S.T.—Citizens Opposed to Acoustic Seismic Testing. Fishermen and environmentalists don’t usually sit at the same table, but stopping seismic testing brought all sides together under one umbrella. The grassroots effort paid off.

In November 2012, the California Coastal Commission denied energy giant PG&E a permit to conduct high-energy seismic surveys off the Central Coast to detail earthquake fault lines around the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Facility in Avila Beach. Perhaps the most compelling argument against permitting—openly acknowledged by a majority of the Commissioners—came from Fred Collins, who eloquently educated them on Chumash heritage on and off the Central Coast and Native-American rights.

With PG&E in retreat, the essential C.O.A.S.T. Alliance of fishermen and environmentalists broke up, but the remaining members continued to oppose acoustic seismic testing, high or so-called low energy. Concerned that PG&E or some major energy entity might attempt a return to local waters, they coalesced around the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which bans seismic testing and energy exploration including fracking.

“This whole thing started with the threat of high-intensity seismic testing by PG&E,” said MBCFO’s Hafer. “This got the Chumash Indians very involved with protecting the coastline.

“However, prior to this threat we have had several years of protections put in place including the marine protected areas of which we have 27 just on the Central Coast, as well as the rock cod conservation areas, the essential fish habitat on top of draconian quotas, trip limits and catch shares that the Chumash were minimally engaged in.”

Said Endersby: “It became pretty evident that sanctuary designation is a great tool to quickly address those bigger, sort of non-fishing threats, but there’s always the fishing in the background, and the way the Monterey Sanctuary has acted over the decades, they’ve basically burned all the bridges with the fisherman, to a degree with the communities, and the trust that they won’t get into fishery regulation, because they’ve tried and tried and tried, and it’s unfortunate that the trust bridge has been burned.”

“What happens when we try to put a boat yard in or try to get dredging in the harbor?” asked Hafer. “Anything will need permission from yet another unnecessary government entity. There is more to having a sanctuary in the area than just the worry of more fishing restrictions.”

Since the National Marine Sanctuaries Act is by definition a national act, the Chumash Heritage National Sanctuary would be federally, not locally, controlled.
“Making the leap from federal control to local control,” questioned Endersby, “I don’t know how that would functionally work.”

A Work in Progress

The nominations are now open for the federal government to consider new sanctuaries, and it’s nationwide. There are months to go in NOAA’s nominating and review process and several years to go before sanctuary designation. There are nominating criteria and considerations that have to be met, and only a very limited number of those sanctuaries nominated get designated.

The proposed Chumash Heritage Sanctuary includes submerged sacred Chumash sites between 10,000 to 20,000 years old extending from six to 13 miles offshore, as well as contiguous onshore coastal sites such as villages, religious grounds and solstice alignments. Within the sanctuary are whale and dolphin feeding and gathering areas, three major upwellings, a 10,000-foot-deep submarine canyon, prime California sea otter habitat, a plethora of pinnipeds, a rich diversity and density of fish, seabirds and mammals, and timeworn migration lanes. No seismic testing allowed. No oil or gas drilling allowed. And according to Chumash Sanctuary literature: “No regulation of harbors, or recreational or commercial fishing.”

“The way Fred terms it, the Chumash are the original commercial fishermen and, yeah, they were, looking at it in that sense—it’s an interesting way of looking at it. So they have a stake in preserving things, too, in not affecting their brothers and sisters that are out doing it for a living. Definitely the intentions with Fred and his group are good. Whether the concerns of the fishermen and the community can get alleviated or spoken to through the process, I don’t have the answer to that.”


Map by Karl Kempton

THE ROCK REPORT: SLO County Health Leaders Focus on Housing to Treat Chronic Homelessness, Mental Illness


As undeniably complex as the issue of homelessness is nationally, what is needed to provide better homeless and mental health services in SLO County is clear: More of everything.

According to a February survey on homelessness and mental illness treatment in SLO County conducted by The ROCK, SLO County officials and professionals working to find pathways to solutions on a daily basis agree: More funding, more affordable housing and more treatment are badly needed to begin to make a serious dent in chronic homelessness shadowing the county.

They also unanimously concur that the Affordable Care Act will offer a huge boost for the chronically homeless in the county as more people become eligible and more services are offered, including mental health, under an expanded Medi-Cal program. (See separate article. Click here.)

More permanent housing for disabled

Last year’s Point-in-Time Count, conducted by the Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC), logged 2,186 homeless people in San Luis County in one 24-hour period in January 2013, and an estimated 3.497 people homeless over the course of a year. Of those, 29% were chronically homeless, with many more at risk, while 49% reported experiencing some form of mental illness, according to the count. Significantly, missing from the data, according to Homeless Services, are persons who do not access shelter, case management, or transitional or permanent housing assistance.

“These statistics demonstrate the need for more permanent, supportive housing for persons with disabilities as well as more treatment services,” responded Laurel Weir, Homeless Services Coordinator, Department of Social Services.

According to Weir, approximately 25 homeless patients per month are admitted to the County’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF), a short-term-stay, crisis facility for adults and youth who are admitted because they are a danger to themselves or others, have been found incompetent to stand trial, or who have been conserved. Over the past year, homeless persons constituted the overwhelming majority of persons admitted to the PHF under California Penal Code 1370 (incarcerated persons who have been found incompetent to stand trial).

Because of revised questions and an added provider in 2013, comparing 2013 homeless numbers to 2012 is inexact. Over all, though, Homeless Services reported a slight decrease in the number of new persons reporting mental health issues in 2012 (575 out of 1451 new “intakes” or 40%) versus 2013 (483 out of 1258 or 38%). But of clients whose first intake was in 2012, 257 were still being served by one or more Homeless Services programs in 2013. From July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, there were 137 homeless persons admitted to the PHF, approximately 16% of all PHF admissions.

“According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, homelessness exacerbates mental illness,” Weir stated. “Therefore, housing is an important part of the treatment. In particular, the Housing First model has shown promise for moving chronically homeless individuals with severe and persistent mental illness off the street.

“As a first step towards increasing resources for people with severe mental illness, particularly those who have co-occurring substance abuse disorders and chronic health conditions, the County recently issued a Request for Proposals to serve 50 of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless persons.”

The RFP explains the program and Housing First model: “The ‘Housing First’ approach has emerged as a favored policy in addressing issues of homelessness. … ‘Housing First’ places people into permanent housing and then provides behavioral health treatment, case management, and other services needed to allow the clients to stabilize in place and to maintain their housing. The model does not require people to be well before putting them into housing, nor does it require clients to participate in any services other than case management as a condition of receiving housing. The ‘Housing First’ model is considered by HUD and other federal agencies to be a best practice for ending homelessness among those who have been chronically homeless, because use of this model consistently demonstrates a decreased use of emergency services, criminal justice resources, and many other public services.”

The RFP continues: “As part of a strategic planning effort in March of 2013, the Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC) identified ‘Housing First’ as a priority. To address this priority, HSOC voted in May of 2013 to join the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national effort that emphasizes a ‘Housing First’ approach to housing highly vulnerable, chronically homeless individuals.”

Explained Weir: “Mental health treatment is not necessarily the first action that should be taken to get homeless persons with mental illness off the streets, nor are clients required to obtain treatment prior to being housed. Treatment often comes after the clients are housed.

“We are also looking at some additional opportunities to expand the number of permanent housing units in the Continuum of Care’s Supportive Housing Program, although whether or not funding is available for this will depend on the aftermath of the federal budget Sequestration.  Additionally, we have asked the agencies that run the existing Supportive Housing Program beds to agree to give priority to chronically homeless persons—who must have a disability, such as mental illness, to be considered chronically homeless—if units become available in their existing Supportive Housing Program.”

“When the HSOC held discussions last year about the Psychiatric Health Facility, it noted that some of the homeless persons being discharged from the PHF were sent to the homeless shelter because of a lack of suitable housing options. The Housing First program and the expansion of permanent, supportive housing would be a first step in helping homeless persons with mental illness to move out of the shelters and off the streets and into more appropriate housing with the supportive help they need to keep them stabilized in housing.

“To be clear, these would be only first steps. In order to fully serve all the homeless persons with mental illness, we would need to significantly increase both our housing and supportive services for this population. We will continue to pursue additional federal and state funding to expand resources needed.”

Finding funding is a full-time, never-ending pursuit for providers, particularly when new funds for new programs can’t keep up with federal cuts that undermine existing programs.

“Recent federal cuts have made our efforts more challenging.” Weir noted. “In particular, the federal Budget Sequestration has put one of our permanent, supportive housing programs at risk of losing its federal funding. Also, a change in the major federal homeless assistance program that funds some of the case management services provided to homeless persons placed into permanent housing has limited the amount of time that case management services may be provided to six months. When someone with a severe and persistent mental illness is placed into permanent housing, they will often continue to need services well beyond six months.

“Cuts to the federal Housing Choice Voucher program have reduced the number of housing subsidies available to place people into permanent housing. Also, cuts at the state level have reduced funding available to build supportive housing for extremely low-income persons with disabilities.”

Limited number of mental health providers

Replied Grace McIntosh, Deputy Director of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO): “While some of our programs see relatively few individuals with mental health issues, other programs, such as Homeless Services, see a larger number. Since mental illness is a major contributing factor to homelessness it would make sense that mentally ill individuals remain in our homeless program for longer periods of time and are more challenging to place into permanent housing. The numbers have remained fairly steady as many individuals are in services for a number of years.”

The need for more funding extends beyond the areas of mental health and housing, McIntosh points out.

“I think most non-profit providers and the county would agree that there is a need for more funding, not only in the area of mental health services, but drug and alcohol services and affordable housing as well. Funding for mental health services for children is an area that needs to be increased as some of our programs are seeing a larger number of younger children presenting behaviors that challenge their ability to be successful in preschool and school.”

McIntosh is among several county officials and professionals who believe Medi-Cal will help more homeless receive care. (See separate article.)

Explained McIntosh: “With expanded Medi-Cal now including mental health services, there will be the opportunity for qualifying individuals to receive these services. I think there may be difficulties with access given the limited number of providers in the county. The issue of a limited number of mental health providers is not only in our county—it is a national issue that I believe is going to need to be addressed in the very near future. Funding is always an issue that providers struggle with. In addition to public dollars most non-profit agencies also look to the community for support.”

A little togetherness is helping providers deal with funding issues. Forming a network allows them to continue to provide essential services, individually and collectively, which benefits clients and community.

“Given the obvious funding gaps, service providers countywide are partnering as best they can to meet the needs of the mentally ill,” McIntosh stated.

“The SAFE program is one concrete example of non-profit service providers, schools and county departments working together to provide preventive and therapeutic services to children and their families. Transitions-Mental Health is partnering with County Mental Health in providing outreach to mentally ill homeless individuals to try to get them into services. ECHO is completing the expansion of their overnight shelter to meet the increase in the numbers of homeless individuals and families in the north county coming for services.”

Lack of funding, lack of advocacy for children

“The final judgment in the lawsuit known as ‘Katie A.’ resulted in some additional resources,” responded Lee Collins, Director of the County Department of Social Services and Child Welfare Services (CWS). CWS is not a provider of care. “We are a broker for care, referring children and advocating on their behalf,” Collins explained.

“Now some additional therapists have been added, some additional contracts have been let—primarily to Family Care Network, the organization that is our most trusted provider of services—and we expect to see a gradual, incremental increase in services. We fund a great deal of mental health services out of our own funding, because we decided that we could not let children languish without care until we’d won the battle on their behalf.”

“We funded the Kinship Center’s expansion into San Luis Obispo County, an organization that primarily serves relatives who are taking care of children. (Think grandmothers, taking care of grandchildren who have been removed from their parents, for example.)  We paid for it ourselves and have done so for many years now. We pay for a host of ‘wraparound’ services provided by the Family Care Network, including therapeutic services provided by their staff.

“Still,” Collins added, “the available resources are woefully inadequate. There is a lack of funding—State, Federal and Local—but there also is a lack of advocacy on behalf of these children. They are seen as just one more ‘constituent’ group in need, among many. We see it differently, of course, because we see the pain endured by these children and by their family members.”

Most significantly, more people are eligible and more services will be offered under the Affordable Care Act, including mental health.

“We believe that the Affordable Care Act will be instrumental in expanding access to Mental Health services. (See separate article.)

Collins sees the need to establish an “intensive residential treatment center for children. Not a group home, and certainly not the PHF, but we do need a place where children can be hospitalized and treated in a safe environment.” Combining with Santa Barbara or another county on a regional facility might make it more economically viable.

“And we have to find a way to serve children who are not in CWS or Probation, rather than trying to convince those parents—as has been reported repeatedly—that they should ‘give up’ their children to the CWS system as the only means of getting care…”

He believes the mental health services gap will narrow when the width and breadth of the community comes to the full realization that the problem must become a priority, and a solution is possible.

“Our community—including advocates, the Board of Supervisors, school administrators, policy makers, media—must become aware of the extent of the issue, and of the deleterious effects that untreated mental health conditions can have on the children but also on the community at large. Untreated mental health issues can lead to increased incarceration, drug and alcohol addiction, unplanned pregnancy, domestic violence and the continuation of a cycle of abuse. We need to illustrate the issue in real terms that make sense to the average citizen who will want ‘something to be done.’ Then we have to show that funding really is available, whether through Medi-Cal or private insurance, or from cost avoidance in other systems, to effect a real solution.”

Keeping pace with the growth in needs

Jeff Hamm, Director, County Health Agency, and Anne Robin, Behavioral Health Administrator, County Health Agency, won’t characterize the status of mental health care in the county as a crisis, rather part of a nationwide increase in demand for services.

“We don’t believe there is a crisis. There are rising demands for mental health services statewide, even nationwide, as more people become aware of the benefit of mental health services and the stigma related to seeking these services has reduced. Approximately 1 in 4 adults will have need for mental health services during their lifetime; development of the capacity necessary to provide access to services has not kept pace with the growth in needs.

“Unfortunately, during the recent recession, capacity has remained static or has been reduced. There is reason to be optimistic about the immediate future, however. The Medi-Cal expansion component of federal health care reform (Affordable Care Act) will allow previously ineligible persons (primarily childless adults) to become eligible, and the expanded scope of benefits will be of tremendous help to those with mild to moderate levels of mental illness.

“The Affordable Care Act has increased funding for all levels of mental health services. In the past, only individuals with serious mental health needs have had access to care under Medi-Cal. Now there are additional levels of care available (individual and group psychotherapy, psychiatric consultation) for all Medi-Cal eligible individuals. This will allow the County services to focus more closely on those individuals and families who have the most serious illness and need for rehabilitative services. The ‘primary level of care’ for mental health services, for those individuals with mild to moderate illness, may also prevent individuals from becoming more seriously impacted by their symptoms.

“Not all homeless individuals have serious mental illness. Many do have trauma, anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders. Housing First models provide a safe place to assist individuals to deal with whatever their service needs may be. Shelters are simply a starting place; more permanent supportive housing are a much better solution to the problems of homelessness. Whatever the other challenges a homeless individual may face, the insecurity of day to day life on the streets creates an enormous barrier to recovery/wellness/health.

“The Affordable Care Act is expected to have a tremendous positive effect on bridging the gap between demand and supply. The coming months and years will shed light on the extent to which the problem has been substantively reduced.”

Creating more truly affordable housing

Increased attention of the unwanted variety was drawn to the Central Coast late last year, causing quite a stir in influential circles, when the annual homeless assessment report ranked SLO County third worst in the nation with 90% of the county’s homeless unsheltered.

This resulted in Jerry Rioux of SLO County Housing Trust Fund authoring some recommendations on how to remedy the situation, such as allowing greater flexibility with existing housing to open up more alternative housing opportunities. Rioux agrees with the Housing First concept.

“Individuals who are homeless will be better able to deal will their other challenges if they first have sufficient food and a roof over their heads,” he noted.

The Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC) recently adopted his recommendations to directly address the basic needs of “food and roof” as the best step forward out of homelessness.

The motion encourages the County and every city in the county to include various programs/policies in the Housing Elements of their General Plans. The state requires that they all update their Housing Elements by June 30, 2014.

Before his motion was approved by the HSOC, Rioux explained why it was needed.

“I prepared the motion because I am concerned that it will be impossible to make much progress placing people who are homeless—for any reason—into housing unless we create more truly affordable housing throughout the county. I strongly believe that we need more small apartment units, granny flats, rooming and boarding houses, group homes, mobile homes, etc. The motion encourages County and cities to facilitate these types of housing.”

Embracing the ‘village’ philosophy of treatment

The County contracts with Transitions-Mental Health Association to runs its Full Service Partnership Homeless Outreach Team that conducts outreach and screening of homeless persons with mental illness. The team has helped to house 27 individuals with severe and persistent mental illness since January 1, 2013.

Transitions staff—Jill Bolster-White, Executive Director, Transitions-Mental Health Association, San Luis Obispo; Barry Johnson, Division Director–Rehabilitation and Advocacy Programs; Jessica Arnott, Outreach and Education Program Manager; Henry Herrera, Family Services Program Manager; and Shannon McOuat, Marketing and Outreach Coordinator—responded to The ROCK survey as a “village.”

“The term ‘crisis’ may be more extreme than what we are facing currently,” they stated, “but there is certainly a need for a greater spotlight on mental health in our community, and there are some critical gaps that, if filled, would help people get the help they need in a timely way.“

Transitions staff believes that cost-effective preventative and early-intervention services can help avoid the high price tag of chronic mental illness in the future—frequent crisis hospitalizations, incarcerations, broken families, homelessness.

“Housing is a significant problem for many members of the community; but people who are mentally ill and poor are more likely to become homeless than those without a mental illness. For that reason, housing that is safe, affordable and located close to services is paramount to successful recovery from mental illness. When a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, there needs to be a solid system in place to help the person as quickly and effectively as possible, and that is not always the case locally.”

They also expressed the need for “a more warm and welcoming mental health services system, starting with the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF), which is an institutional and clinical setting. The PHF needs to be a place of refuge and safety for people who are experiencing one of the most devastating times in their lives.”

Transitions’ work as an independent outpatient facility has helped the County narrow the gap by providing the focused treatment that often isn’t available anywhere else.

“Non-profits such as Transitions-Mental Health Association can and do work well with county mental health services, private therapists and family practice doctors. The saying ‘it takes a village’ is truly applicable to community mental health; we must include the family, the school, the employer, friends and our entire community to help anyone who struggles with mental illness.

“Services such as family support groups to help caregivers and families; Wellness Centers that provide support and education about living with mental illness; employment for people who want to work but have been prevented from working due to their illness; SLO Hotline that offers a human voice 24 hours a day; outreach services for those who are homeless and suffer from untreated mental illness—can all provide a basic safety net of services for people here in San Luis Obispo County.

“In many ways, we are well on our way to accomplishing this already. We still have leaps and bounds to go, but we are able to provide a variety of services and programs that can help those in our community who otherwise might not receive services from the county.”

Long waiting lists for subsidized housing

Pearl Munak, President of Transitional Food & Shelter in Paso Robles, works with the physically disabled. Some homeless have both mental and physical disabilities. Munak believes more resources are needed to place against the problem, including building shelters and offering subsidized housing for mentally ill homeless.

“There is not nearly enough subsidized housing in our county for those who need it,” Munak stated. “That is why we are third in the nation in unsheltered homeless. People go to a shelter and caseworkers can’t get them into permanent subsidized housing. The County is supposedly pursuing a Housing First strategy, to get people into housing and then solve their problems, not try to solve their problems before they can get into housing.”

“Subsidized housing is either for families or for seniors. Some senior housing is for seniors-only, some also take disabled. But there are no subsidized apartment complexes devoted exclusively to disabled…”

“Transitions-Mental Health Association provides some transitional housing for homeless, where people can stay for up to two years and have a caseworker working with them. At the end of that time, they should be able to get into permanent housing. However, they have a very long waiting list, about a year. This program also takes persons with physical disabilities. It needs to be expanded and funds are needed to expand it.

“We could pass another proposition to add a surtax on another 1% of high income, or tax highest incomes more.”

Munak recently received a grant check from Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Foundation for $4,500, to be used for sheltering physically disabled homeless from Paso Robles.

“We serve the whole county,” Munak remarked, “but the Alliance has a program of grants to charities serving Paso Robles, so we will use this grant for our Roblans only. The Alliance raises funds through the Wine Festival Futures Auction and the Wine Country ebay Auction, featuring lots donated by winery, hospitality and associate Alliance members.”


More Homeless Eligible, More Mental Health Services Coming Under Expanded Medi-Cal Via ACA

Politics aside, the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is finally expanding health care to those who need it most—SLO County’s chronically homeless and mentally ill homeless.

acaPolitics aside, the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is finally expanding health care to those who need it most—SLO County’s chronically homeless and mentally ill homeless—and it’s giving SLO County health care officials and professionals a reason for some short-term optimism amid the many ongoing challenges.

Here’s what SLO County health care officials and professionals had to say about the Affordable Care Act in a February survey by The ROCK on the status of homelessness and mental health services in the county:

“There are some changes coming as a result of the Affordable Care Act that may expand both mental health and substance abuse treatment services available to people on Medi-Cal,” stated Laurel Weir, Home Services Coordinator, County Health Department.

“This has the potential to create additional mental health resources, particularly for homeless persons with mental health issues whose issues do not rise to the level of severe and persistent illness. Previously, such individuals generally were not eligible for Medi-Cal. Now, they will be eligible for Medi-Cal for the first time, which may create an opportunity for more mental health services for those persons.”

Grace McIntosh, Deputy Director, CAPSLO: “With expanded Medi-Cal now including mental health services, there will be the opportunity for qualifying individuals to receive these services. I think there may be difficulties with access given the limited number of providers in the county. The issue of a limited number of mental health providers is not only in our county—it is a national issue that I believe is going to need to be addressed in the very near future. “

While the recession has impacted County Health’s capacity to treat more people, Jeff Hamm, Director, and Anne Robin, Behavior Analyst, County Health Department, are optimistic about the immediate future, thanks to the ACA.

“The Medi-Cal expansion component of federal health care reform (Affordable Care Act) will allow previously ineligible persons (primarily childless adults) to become eligible, and the expanded scope of benefits will be of tremendous help to those with mild to moderate levels of mental illness.

“The Affordable Care act has increased funding for all levels of mental health services. In the past, only individuals with serious mental health needs have had access to care under Medi-Cal. Now there are additional levels of care available (individual and group psychotherapy, psychiatric consultation) for all Medi-Cal eligible individuals.This will allow the County services to focus more closely on those individuals and families who have the most serious illness and need for rehabilitative services. The ‘primary level of care’ for mental health services, for those individuals with mild to moderate illness, may also prevent individuals from becoming more seriously impacted by their symptoms.

“The Affordable Care Act is expected to have a tremendous positive effect on bridging the gap between demand and supply. The coming months and years will shed light on the extent to which the problem has been substantively reduced.”

District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill served as the founding chair of the HSOC and chair of the capital campaign for a new homeless services center: “The Affordable Care Act will allow us to increase capacity for both mental health services and for drug and alcohol treatment. A detox is needed, and proposals are being developed for how that could/should happen.”

Lee Collins, Director of the County’s Department of Social Services: “We believe that the Affordable Care Act will be instrumental in expanding access to Mental Health services. More persons are eligible, yes, but more services—and especially MH services—now must be included in health plans in order to implement ‘parity’ provisions. We believe that CHC (Community Health Center) will become—and certainly should become—a primary resource to serve both children and adults. They will not need to consider the ‘medical necessity’ threshold that serves to deny so many children the ‘specialty services’ that our County’s MH staff provide, even though we believe that most of our children in care really do meet the standard of care. The expectation is that CHC will build capacity—and already have begun to do so—and that a certain momentum may be created to help expand care on a community-wide basis.”

“Mental healthcare can be expected to expand now because of the ACA,” responded Pearl Munak, President, Transitional Food & Shelter in Paso Robles.

“Medi-Cal is being expanded thru ACA to cover mental health care, but the pay rate is low. CHC takes Medi-Cal and is about the only doctor that will. Maybe CHC will hire some mental health professionals or County Mental Health will be able to hire more. Counselors at Mental Health are usually licensed clinical social workers.

“The ACA expands Medi-Cal to cover not just families with children and those on SSI, but also any person whose income is below 133% of poverty level, a huge expansion in California and other states which have accepted this expansion. Texas and other Southern states have refused to accept this expansion even though it is 100% paid for by the feds for the first year and maybe beyond that; maybe first two or three years and then it goes down to 90%. … The county will save a bundle because they are phasing out County Medical Services Program because of ACA, since all poor people can now get Medi-Cal and go to CHC. CHC will probably be expanding.”

A Resident's Qwik-Guide to New Water Restrictions in Morro Bay

Rainfall from February 2nd’s storm measured 1.12 inches in Morro Bay, a drop in an empty bucket. In may rain again soon. Two drops.

Rainfall from February 2nd’s storm measured 1.12 inches in Morro Bay, a drop in an empty bucket. It may rain again soon. Two drops.

A 100-year drought is sweeping California and threatening the state’s drinking water supply. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water during the dry season, was at just 12% of normal in late January. State water is dwindling to a trickle, and the outlook is dry… very dry.

When Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared the drought emergency on Jan. 17, he asked Californians to reduce their usage of water by 20%, As a direct result of the drought, Morro Bay residents must now observe strict, new mandatory guidelines to reduce water usage. The screws on water use could turn even tighter if drought conditions persist and present conservation levels prove insufficient.

Here are the restrictions and suggestions in a clam shell for Morro Bay residents:

  • Watering lawns and gardens is permitted ONLY on Tuesdays and Saturdays for odd-numbered property addresses, Wednesdays and Sundays for even-numbered property addresses.
  • Do NOT use potable water (drinkable water) for cleaning or washing boats, docks and marine facilities, or for driveways, patios, parking lots, sidewalks and other paved surfaces.
  • Do NOT wash cars with a hose, only pails.
  • Use automatic sprinkler systems only as needed. Use automatic shut-off hose nozzles.
  • Home water use should be limited. Take faster/shorter or start/stop showers.
  • Fix plumbing leaks and broken pipes.
  • Don’t install or use water fountains unless they use recycled water.
  • Restaurants will no longer provide water to customers unless requested.

Warning to flagrant water wasters: Users who fail to comply with conservation measures may have their water shut off by the city.

Drought Factoid No. 1: 2013 was the driest year in California in 119 years.

Drought Factoid No. 3: The four inches of rainfall recorded in Morro Bay in 2013 was the lowest total since measuring rainfall started about 40 years ago.

Readers with useful suggestions for conserving water, at home or business, are encouraged to share them in the comments section below.

Morro Bay Power Plant Pulls Plug After 60 Years

The tall smokestacks have taken their last puff. The venerable Morro Bay Power Plant, owned and operated by Houston-based Dynegy since 2007, will finally retire operations full-time on February 5th

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The tall smokestacks have taken their last puff.

The venerable Morro Bay Power Plant, owned and operated by Houston-based Dynegy since 2007, will finally retire operations full-time on February 5th.

That means the trio of 450-foot-high smokestacks will no longer produce smoke, but the giant chimneys won’t be coming down any time soon just because the plant is closing.

To many area residents, the power plant’s soaring smokestacks are as much a Morro Bay landmark as 575-foot-high Morro Rock; looming over the north end of the Embarcadero on Morro Bay, they’ve been a prominent part of Morro Bay’s skyline since the plant opened in 1955.

The plant, which has burned natural gas since the 1990s, has been winding down in recent years, but remained ready to meet summer peak energy demands. However, Dynegy presently has no contracts for its services, demand for independent energy on the open market has been sparse, and the plant is no longer cost-effective for Dynegy to operate.

While most Morro Bay residents welcome the pollutant-free air, safer marine environment and quieter waterfront as a result of the plant closing, not all agree on what to do with the smokestacks if and when Dynegy gives up on producing any form of energy at that location. Eyesores to demolish? Historical landmarks to preserve? That’s a debate for another time.

Meanwhile, Dynegy still holds the lease and says it’s actively exploring viable alternative uses for the location that benefit the state and community. The company believes it can continue to support energy and electricity needs at the site, including renewable energy, and play a part in Morro Bay’s future.

Morro Valley — Future Site of Morro Bay’s New Water Reclamation Facility

The City of Morro Bay has selected nearby rural Morro Valley as the site of the city’s proposed water reclamation facility.

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The City of Morro Bay has selected nearby rural Morro Valley as the site of the city’s proposed water reclamation facility.

The site’s proximity to Morro Bay homes and businesses was a key factor in its selection. Located within two miles of city limits off Highway 41, the site is actually four properties that stretch for a total of 663 acres, but less than half of that land is usable for the project because of elevation.

The topography is challenging. Much of the site consists of rolling, sharply sloping hills that rise in elevation from 60 feet by Highway 41, to 250 feet above sea level, which is too steep to cost-effectively pipe sewage up to a facility.

“There are substantial engineering challenges associated with pumping wastewater above elevations of roughly 250 feet above sea level, because multiple lift stations will likely be needed,” according to a city consultant’s 2103 project report.

“All parcels under consideration rise to elevations above 250 feet [up to 750-800 feet], but there is sufficient buildable land below this line to locate a new WRF. … That said, slopes and elevations may present secondary issues related to the cost of pumping, or grading concerns during construction.”

The facility probably will be constructed on relatively level Righetti property adjacent to Highway 41, within 600-1,000 feet of the highway. Avoiding the high elevation will make the facility partially visible to passing motorists on Highway 41.

The sprawling site is loosely shaped like a rectangle with a small notch in the center at the bottom. That “notch” is the 60-plus-unit, tree-cloaked Rancho Colina Mobile Home Park and 40-vehicle RV Park, which is surrounded by land available to the project. Construction activity and the facility itself will probably be visible to some park residents.

Occupying the site now are a few cows, sparse clumps of trees, a couple of aging ranch structures and rusted water tanks. Mostly, the site is open grasslands, non-irrigated grazing range mixed with some prime ag land, much like the rolling Morro Bay prime farmland on the east side of Highway 1.

Close to the eastern boundary of the site are growers Morro Creek Ranch Avocado, considered to be a potential customer for water reuse for irrigation, as well as other irrigated agricultural along Highway 41.

According to last November’s “New Water Reclamation Facility Report” update, authored by John F. Rickenbach Consulting, Morro Valley was a relatively lower cost option compared to other sites. It was also the highest ranked site with the fewest environmental impacts, i.e. avoiding flood zone and ESHA, because its inland location minimizes coastal policy impacts.

The Morro Valley site is comprised of several large “unconstrained” properties, particularly the Rancho Colina and Righetti properties. While that includes sufficient land area lower than the 250 feet above sea level required to build, the four combined parcels that make up the Morro Valley site offer limited plant site locations because of slopes and rising elevations along Highway 41.

The site evaluation was not without its cons. The location comes with the increased costs to extend infrastructure up Highway 41, and, apart from costs, there also will be impacts to prime ag soils on certain parts of some properties.

The plant, which the consultants at this early date roughly estimate will cost from $50 million to $100 million to complete, could begin construction in 2016 and go on line in 2018 or 2019.

So the cows won’t have to move any time soon.

The Great Santa Paula Chloride Caper

Santa Paula Councilman Bob Gonzales wants the city to stop its “unethical” arbitration proceedings against Santa Paula Water over chlorides in the city’s water. Stakes are high in citrus country. Who will prevail?

PERCSantaPaulaSanta Paula Councilman Bob Gonzales wants the city to stop its “unethical” arbitration proceedings against Santa Paula Water LLC over chloride in the city’s water. But City Manager Jaime Fontes has a plan to use the issue to buy back the privately financed Santa Paula Water Recycling Facility at a multimillion-dollar discount. The plant’s owners are not about to play along with Fontes’ predatory tactics. Who will prevail?

There’s salt in the water in Santa Paula, California, “the Citrus Capital of the World,” and that’s not good for agriculture, the soil it grows in, or any living thing in the Ventura County city of 32,000 that uses water. Now an arbitrator will determine who will pay for it, the City of Santa Paula or Santa Paula Water LLC, the private subsidiary set up to run the city’s almost four-year-old water recycling facility.

In July 2013, the city initiated a claim against Santa Paula Water LLC (SPW) for failure of the facility to treat chlorides a/k/a salts. This was a stunning turn of events in a short period of time for the groundbreaking $62 million wastewater project, especially since Santa Paula Water doesn’t dispute that the facility doesn’t treat or remove chlorides—because it was never contracted to remove them at the time the contract was awarded to Costa Mesa, California-based PERC Water to build the facility in 2008.

Santa Paula City Manager Jaime Fontes, hired in 2010, sees 2008 differently. Wrote Fontes in a Sept. 20, 2013 city press release announcing the commencement of a “dispute resolution action against Santa Paula Water, LLC, to determine its liability for the treatment and removal of chlorides at the Santa Paula Water Recycling Facility (SPWRF)”:

“The 2008 Design, Build, Operate and Finance (DBOF) Agreement with Santa Paula Water, an entity owned and controlled by Pacific Environmental Resources Corporation [PERC Water] and Alinda Capital, required the SPWRF to meet all requirements set forth by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and a Court Order issued to conclude a lawsuit against the City by the State Water Resources Control Board. These requirements mandated that the discharge from the SPWRF could not contain chlorides at levels that exceeded 100mg/l.

“The SPWRF does not now and has never met the 100mg/l criterion. Because of that failure, the City faces significant penalties assessed by the State of California. To fix the problem will cost millions of dollars.”

Located about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles, the citrus-belt city has been struggling with high chloride levels for many years. A high content of chlorides in groundwater and surface runoff poses a risk to water quality, and needs to be carefully monitored and regulated. In 2006 the city made a conscious decision to solve the chloride compliance issue by source control. They had a plan to reduce chloride at the source of the water, not at the recycling facility, but before the wastewater entered the plant, and, additionally, by buying back residents’ brine-discharging home water softeners, identified as the main salt-producing culprit.

This explains why the city directed all the bidders for the plant contract, during the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage, not to include facilities to treat chlorides at the wastewater plant. The city didn’t want to pay the higher cost of treatment downstream at the plant when it was more cost-effective to treat it at the source.

So it’s been generally well known that the still new-looking Santa Paula Water Recycling Facility, which went fully on line in May 2010, wasn’t built to treat chlorides. Since it wasn’t built to treat chlorides on the city’s direction, what does the city hope to gain by blaming the chloride problem on the owner of the plant they approved five years ago?

In a chilling example of the seismic shifts than can occur almost overnight in local politics, and their disruptive impact on large projects, the city administration in Santa Paula has changed since those good old days when the plant was sought and built from 2007 to 2010. There is a new city manager and city council majority in power now, and they are implementing a five-year option in the DBOF contract to buy back the facility from the private owners and bring it into public sector ownership, because they think they can do it cheaper and save the city money. But it’s safe to say that’s probably not what’s actually going to happen in Santa Paula. Not by a long shot.

Santa Paula City Manager Jaime Fontes
Santa Paula City Manager Jaime Fontes

‘Stop the Arbitration’

Rather than deal with the city’s long-standing chloride problem separately, as the city said it was going to do in 2006, City Manager Fontes—who hastily left a similar post in Nogales, Arizona, to take the job in Santa Paula—has chosen a seemingly desperate strategy that places the city at potentially greater financial risk: Pin the cost of fixing the chloride issue, and any Regional Water Board fines that may result from accumulated non-compliance, on the private owners of the facility, Greenwich, Connecticut-headquartered Alinda Capital. Then try to buy back the facility for millions less by using arbitration to negotiate a reduction of the purchase price previously agreed to by the city, reported to be around $75 million.

And never mind that tied into the buy-back price of the facility are deferred payments with interest, municipal investors and pension fund investments, some of the benefits of contracting with Alinda/PERC in the first place. Dissolving a local and global network of financial partnerships and having to reestablish new ones hasn’t deterred Fontes from plunging ahead.

“Using the litigation as a means to negotiate and beat down the price … is not right,” said Santa Paula Councilman Bob Gonzales, one of two council members on the short end of the council’s 3-to-2 split vote for arbitration.

“It’s a waste of money, time and effort,” he said. “The chlorides were to be dealt with as a separate issue. Our council is thinking it can get something for almost nothing (through dispute resolution), and that’s to have PERC build a chloride system, or/and reduce the value of the existing facility. But we could build (the chloride system) out of our own money.

“The ethical thing to do would be to stop the arbitration issue, save some of that money and put it towards a study to start moving forward with a system where we can deal with the chlorides,” Gonzales said.

Current City Manager Fontes was not part of the awarding of the original project, the negotiations or construction. Yet he apparently believes he can circumvent the city’s contract with Santa Paula Water, which predates his arrival in Santa Paula, by devaluing the plant and lowering the price through the arbitration process.

“Any effort, energy and time would be better spent working on the solution versus trying to go to court and arbitration and getting something for nothing,” said Gonzales. “I’m not sure where the money’s coming from for the arbitration, but someone’s got to pay … for hiring attorneys to represent us.”

Gonzales, who was Mayor in 2008 and again in 2012, can’t see how Santa Paula Water will end up having to pay a dime to the city for what has always been the city’s problem.

“It’s hard to imagine SPW paying anything coming out of this arbitration. It’s not fair. Nothing against attorneys we have here, but the only people that are going to make money out of this are the attorneys.

“It’s going to take a long time to get through this thing, and I believe the majority of the city, the majority of the council, have been given direction to go in this direction (by Fontes), and I think it’s unethical.

“I can’t see where there are any winners,” Gonzales said.

The city claims Santa Paula Water, the limited entity set up to run the facility in a joint venture with Alinda/PERC, is in breach of contract because they didn’t treat chlorides, which wasn’t an issue when they built the plant, only now when the city wants to buy the plant. When the city, under one administration five years ago, contracted Alinda/PERC to finance and to build the plant, Santa Paula Water was told they didn’t need to worry about chlorides. The October 2007 RFP requested it that way:

“It is not anticipated that additional treatment facilities will be included in the WRF to remove chloride, sulfate and boron.”

And in February 2011 the city-hired consultant, Carollo Engineers, signed off on it:

“…the SPWRF is meeting all of the effluent limits listed in the permit, except for chloride. However, SPWRF was never intended to remove chloride.”

A grand jury later investigated and in a June 2013 report determined that the city failed to address chloride in their RFP:

“The Grand Jury found that the high levels of discharged chlorides which have plagued the Santa Clara River and the local agriculture was not addressed in the original proposal or contract.” 

The plant was never intended to treat chlorides and therefore it doesn’t.

Fontes publicly acknowledged in his September 20 press release that millions in accumulated fines from the Regional Water Board were all but in the mail; he seemed to be almost inviting them. Because chloride in the water isn’t really the central issue for Fontes; it’s the facility he’s after. Using the fines, or the imminent threat of them, as a pressure tactic, the city’s attorneys hope to shift the blame, or even a portion of it, for the chloride issue on to Santa Paula Water. Then, using arbitration to leverage a cheaper price, they city intends to buy back the facility at a bargain for what it failed to do by design: treat chloride.

Whether arbitration is stopped before it begins, as Councilman Gonzales suggests it should, or continues unabated, Santa Paula Water’s attorneys aren’t going to be rolling over for the city’s chloride caper. Why should they? The key documents support SPW. And some might say that trying to get something for nothing is, for all intent and purposes, fraud.

‘Wild Goose Chase’

In his September 20 press release, Fontes presented his case, alleging that the Santa Paula Water Recycling Facility, “owned and controlled by Pacific Environmental Resources Corporation and Alinda Capital … does not now and has never met the 100mg/l criterion. Because of that failure, the City faces significant penalties assessed by the State of California. To fix the problem will cost millions of dollars.”

Pacific Environmental Resources Corporation (PERC Water) is not a party to this arbitration, but like most press releases, Fontes’ pronouncement contained an ample dose of hyperbole, spin, omissions and over-the-top propaganda.

“What I found to be quite disappointing, though not particularly surprising, were the misstatements of fact and the resulting level of innuendo the press release contained,” wrote Marsha Rea, a columnist with the Santa Paula Times, and a longtime keen observer of local politics, on October 4, 2013.

“Mr. Fontes is correct in his assertion that the city has never been in a state of compliance with the chloride mitigation requirements, but we knew this already; and remains at risk for hefty fines again today, which we didn’t know.”

It’s been well known that the facility didn’t treat or remove chlorides because it was never designed to meet that need. When the city issued RFPs to build the plant, it stated that the city “did not anticipate that additional treatment facilities will be included to remove chlorides,” eliminating chlorides removal as a requirement for the new plant.

“It makes one wonder what is the underlying agenda Mr. Fontes is driving,” wrote Rea.

When construction of the plant was complete, the city hired Carollo Engineers to evaluate the status of the plant, and in February 2010 Carollo stated that “all the conditions of the DBOF [design, build, operate, finance) agreement have been met for the City to issue Final Acceptance to PERC Water,” the last step in meeting the final completion requirements of the DBOF agreement.

“So how/why does Mr. Fontes hop, skip or jump from the Carollo memo saying everything’s been done according to your plan in 2011, to this new gambit of finger pointing at the builders who did pretty much exactly what was asked of them?” asked Rea.

Part of the reason for choosing Alinda/PERC for the project was the financial flexibility it offered the city. The city didn’t have sufficient funds to build the project, and the Regional Water Board mandated a deadline for compliance. Lower upfront costs would allow the city to deal with the chloride issue separately. All they had to do was follow through on their buy-back program for salt-discharging home-water softeners, but the city dragged its collective feet, and have up to this day.

“There has been absolutely no change at all in the chloride situation here in Santa Paula,” states Rea, “and thus here we are again facing large fines for unacceptable chloride levels in our waste water discharge (reminiscent) of 2002-2003. Have we seen this movie before?”

According to Rea, Fontes has been saying for years that the city is about to issue bonds to buy back the treatment plant. However, she opines, “There are no bond underwriters that I know of who will participate in issuing new bonds with the potential of several million dollars in [Regional Water Board] fines hanging over the head of the borrower.”

So why is Fontes striking out on a diversionary mission that can only further drive up the cost of wastewater to already-surcharged ratepayers? Why has Fontes chosen the high-wire act with no blindfold, no safety net?

Rea sees a malevolent, takeover-style strategy at work behind the scenes. “Get Alinda Capitol, who now owns the water treatment plant, into protracted, although frivolous, litigation and try to strong arm them through public pressure into reducing the previously agreed to price for the sale of the plant back to the city.”

Rea is concerned that Fontes’ reckless course of action could result in a substantial negative impact “on all of the counties, municipalities, school districts, retirement funds, etc. who invested through Alinda in our facility, and who were led to believe they would have a reasonable rate of return over time.”

In the end, however, Rea is confident that Alinda’s attorneys will “make Mr. Fontes look irrelevant and foolish, while he spends lots of the City’s precious money on a wild goose chase that will eventually come to naught.”

That promise of failure still doesn’t quite explain Fontes’ apparent obsession with buying back the wastewater plant at a discount to which he and the city are not entitled, not by contract or ultimate responsibility. It has all the appearance of a vendetta by someone who would waste millions of taxpayer dollars to prove he can get what he wants for almost nothing. Such arrogance won’t do anything to help Santa Paula residents facing escalating sewer and water rates. It will only rub more salt in their wounds.

“It is unfortunate that the designers of this facility, who in their contract said they would deal with this and other requirements, just failed to do so,” said Fontes in his lopsided press release. “They were supposed to be the experts and that’s why the City contracted with them. They signed on the dotted line and accepted the responsibility to make sure that the City was going to be in compliance. Now the City is left to deal with this issue.

“When the next round of fee increases occurs in a couple of months as a result of this agreement entered in 2008 (with Alinda/PERC), we want the people of Santa Paula to know that we are fighting to get them rate relief.”

It’s hard to imagine more than a few in Santa Paula believing a word of Fontes’ “fighting for rate relief” fear-inspired half-time speech, except for the “fee increase” part. And that’s not good news for Santa Paula.