Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

State resources leader told people in small towns need help during drought

When John Laird, secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency, comes to Fresno these days, people want to talk with him about water.  Specifically, the lack of it.

Community Food Bank provided food for Mendota in 2009.

He met this week with the Latino Water Coalition to chat about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan — the one with the twin tunnels — the final draft of which will hit the streets Dec. 13.

The plan looks decades ahead to cure California’s water and ecosystem problems. It involves billions of dollars and construction of two tunnels to avoid pumping water directly from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But the Latino Water Coalition seemed just as interested in the short term, meaning next year. What if there is a dry winter? People in small west San Joaquin Valley towns could suffer as they did in a dry 2009, members said.

In west-side cities with high unemployment, food lines are not unusual. But the lines were much longer in 2009. The coalition said nobody in state government prepared for the problem.

Said Gary Serrato, general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, “We should be preparing now to help Mendota and Firebaugh next year in case we have a dry winter.”

Laird said he would take the message back to Sacramento. He said both long- and short-term issues need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, farmers, water districts, cities and industries are worried in Central California. Not a drop of November rain has hit the rain gauge in Fresno yet.

“We will wind up idling close to 50% of our land next year if it continues to be dry,” said west-side farmer Joel Del Bosque.

Meet the Sablans, still doctoring in Firebaugh

Wednesday’s front page of the Los Angeles Times brought a familiar story of the Sablans, the husband-wife doctor team that serves Firebaugh. Read Anna Gorman’s profile of Drs. Oscar and Marcia Sablan here.

It’s always nice to see other media write about the central San Joaquin Valley. The Times’ story brought back memories of a profile of Marcia Sablan, written by Doug Hoagland for The Bee in 1999. Sablan was also the mayor of Firebaugh back then (she’s still a City Council member). Doug’s story was part of The Bee’s “Eye on the Valley” series profiling the region’s communities as we rolled toward the millennium.  We though we’d share Doug’s story with readers again:

Fresno Bee staff photographer John Walker’s 1999 photo of Dr. Marcia Sablan with one of her collages of photos of children she’s delivered to local patients.

Golden, late afternoon sunshine softens this town’s rough edges as Marcia Sablan, doctor and mayor, returns to her clinic on O Street after lingering along the river. That would be the San Joaquin. On the edge of town. Where there’s actually more than a dribble of water in the usually dry riverbed. Sablan has been to the San Joaquin to show off how Firebaugh carves pedestrian pathways and vista points — elements of a tranquil riverside park — out of the dirt and brush. The project beats back the small-minded notion that nothing ever changes here. Here being the northwestern lip of Fresno County, where the winter wind can blow hard. But not as hard as the big, billowy idealism that has carried Marcia Sablan across 53 years of life.

That idealism propelled her from the Peace Corps to the urban core to the rural poor of Firebaugh. Sablan serves as one of this city’s two full-time doctors and its only mayor.

She practices a brand of medicinal politics that lets her knit together this community’s private and public moments. Moments that catch people at their most vulnerable, frustrated, appreciative, petty, confused. Times when they’re most human.

For example:

  • Sablan does the ultrasound and delivers the stunning news to city hall secretary Martha Castaneda that she and husband, Santiago, will be the very happy and tired parents of triplets. Sablan feels her own toes tingle with excitement, but then fear knots her stomach. Triplets can lead to medical complications. Happily, mom and babies do just fine.
  • Sablan sits through a City Council hearing where an irate and dramatic citizen says she’ll seek relief from a proposed water rate increase by relieving herself in a jar at home. That way she won’t have to flush her toilet. Questionable logic, Sablan thinks, but she doesn’t argue. Sometimes, people in politics just need to listen, she says later.
  • Sablan visits a bedridden Sara Gonzales, 97, who sometimes confuses Sablan’s husband — the other doctor in town — for the pope. But Gonzales never forgets to press her palms together in prayer-like reverence to bless Dr. Marcia — as some people call her. She feels honored.
  • Sablan casts her City Council vote and ends a simmering controversy that has split the council into two factions. The quarrelsome issue: what to name two new city streets. “An embarrassment, ” Sablan says succinctly.

Through the petty and the profound, Marcia Sablan projects a presence that’s both looming and laid back. She’s 5-foot-10 and stands for even bigger convictions. One of the biggest: helping Firebaugh’s Hispanic majority merge into the middle-class mainstream. In a California culture where new faces seek equality and power, some people feel uncomfortable, even threatened by this white doctor’s brand of politics, says Craig Harrison, a Catholic priest and friend. It’s one of the subtexts of a culture caught in change.

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Haven’t paid your state taxes? You could lose your license!

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More than a dozen Valley business owners have the unfortunate distinction of being on the latest quarterly edition of debtors who owe the most in past-due sales and use taxes to the state Board of Equalization.

Of 500 debtors on the list released Friday, 14 are from Fresno, Madera, and Tulare counties. Their debts range from about $454,000 to more than $3.1 million, and the oldest dates back nearly 20 years.

To put additional bite into the list, state law requires the Board of Equalization to provide the Top 500 list to other state agencies. Taxpayers on the list can be subject to penalties that affect any state licenses they may have, including driver’s licenses, occupational or professional licenses, and they may be barred from entering into contracts with state agencies.

Here’s the list for the fourth quarter of 2012, along with the amounts owed and the first lien date reported by the state:

  • Central Valley Food Services Inc., dba Jack in the Box, Fresno — $3,110,382 (2008)
  • Kings Drywall Inc., dba Kings Drywall Supply, Selma — $2,569,114 (2011)
  • Up-Right Inc., Madera — $1,598,993 (2011)
  • Partnership of Linda R. Wade and Mark William Wade, dba Grandma’s Kitchen, Fresno — $1,091,693 (1993)
  • Curt’s Auto Repair Inc., dba Oakhurst Shell Oil Co., Oakhurst — $939,894 (2001)
  • Bob Silva Ford, Fresno — $654,095 (2010)
  • Plasencia Incorporated, dba Mario’s Auto Sales, Cutler — $624,643 (2008)
  • Mario Plasencia, Dinuba — $620,768 (2010)
  • Partnership of Gregory D. Gonzales and Roger Paul Toschi, dba Vernon’s Chevron Service, Madera — $619,934 (2008)
  • Savino Navarro Lara, Firebaugh — $596,100 (2002)
  • Jack Dubeau Champ Chevrolet Buick Inc., dba Champion Chevrolet Buick, Firebaugh — $553,369 (2005)
  • John Bernard Dubeau, Fresno — $550,784 (2008)
  • Roger Rose, Tulare — $457,773 (2012)
  • Ameriwest Inc., Visalia — $454,305 (2010)

Something new this quarter from the Board of Equalization is an interactive map that shows the location of each debtor among the Top 500.

The Board of Equalization issues the Top 500 list every quarter. Businesses on the list are notified 30 days in advance, giving them a chance to settle their debt or set up an installment program. Amounts that are paid through installments, or are in the midst of bankruptcy, litigation or appeals, are not included on the list.

West-side school district goes solar, gets music program back

The Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District has made a daring leap to solar power at three of its five school sites — a $5 million venture aimed at getting off the grid, saving money and helping the environment.

But there’s one more benefit: It made enough money available to bring back a music program that had died three years ago with the crashing economy. The district hired a music teacher and re-started its program this fall.

“Every student needs something to connect with in school,” said superintendent Russell Freitas. “This is a great opportunity to get students the chance to connect with music.”

This is quite a story about solar power being used in an impoverished, rural school district on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side. If it works, this might be the start of something big in the Valley.

How did Firebaugh-Las Deltas, a 2,300-student district, swing a deal like this?

The district got help from a consulting firm to figure out if its payments on the loan would be less than the cost of its utility bills.

The numbers reportedly show a $9 million savings over the next 25 years, said Freitas, who worked with SolarCity, a national company with a Fresno office. The system will be paid off in 15 years, he said.

During the first five years, the savings will be about $900,000, said Freitas.

The system has been installed at Firebaugh High School, Firebaugh Middle School and Hazel Bailey Elementary School. The schools are still connected to the electricity grid as backup, Freitas said.