- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 18, 2018

July 18

Los Angeles Times on who should pay cost of California’s wildfires:

Downed power lines and sparking electrical equipment ignited many of California’s recent devastating wildfires, including about a dozen of the blazes that raged through Northern California in a massive deadly firestorm last year. The 2017 Thomas fire, the state’s largest wildfire in history in terms of acreage, may also have been started by downed power lines. Indeed, in recent years, electrical equipment or lines are among the three leading causes of wildfires in California.

When power-related equipment causes a fire, the utility that owns it must pay for the damage to homes and property, even if there was no negligence. Under the concept of “inverse condemnation,” the government must provide fair compensation when it damages private property, regardless of fault. The courts have applied this strict liability doctrine to privately owned public utilities as well, reasoning that they are in effect public entities making a public use of property. The costs associated with an inverse condemnation - for example, the payouts to homeowners whose neighborhoods were destroyed in a wildfire - have for years been spread broadly across the population as government agencies and utilities passed them on to residents and ratepayers.

But for investor-owned electric utilities such as Southern California Edison, there’s a twist. Utilities can’t raise rates without the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission. And the PUC now appears to be laying down a tough line: In order to recoup the costs of an inverse condemnation from ratepayers, a utility must show that it was a “prudent” manager of its infrastructure.

Last year, the PUC denied a request by San Diego Gas & Electric to raise rates to cover $380 million in claims from wildfires in 2007 after a court said the utility did not properly trim trees and manage vegetation near the damaged properties. This decision shook the state’s three big investor-owned electric utilities - Edison, SDG&E and Pacific Gas & Electric - which say they face financial ruin if they can’t recoup the cost of inverse condemnations, particularly as the higher temperatures, drought and the accumulation of millions of dead trees combine to increase the risk of devastating fires.

State lawmakers will grapple with how to allocate costs from wildfire damage claims this month in a conference committee set up specifically to hammer out new rules for wildfire liability. The committee will also explore ways to prevent or limit the damage from wildfires, such as by requiring better vegetation management and by setting clear protocols for cutting power during high-risk weather. With fires raging around the state, this discussion couldn’t come at a better time.

It is reasonable to examine whether there might be a fairer way to assign costs than holding utilities strictly liable through inverse condemnation; after all, utilities can’t refuse to serve areas prone to wildfires or charge customers higher rates based solely on fire risk. Nevertheless, lawmakers must be careful not to give utilities a pass by removing the financial imperative to ensure their equipment doesn’t start fires. And frankly some of the proposals circulated in Sacramento in recent months would do just that.

One of the more troubling proposals would relieve utilities of liability for damages if the actions they took were prudent, but would define as “prudent” any step taken (or not taken) while the utility was following a safety plan approved by regulators. This means that if a potentially important safety precaution wasn’t detailed in the plan - for example, if the plan lacked equipment maintenance schedules or minimum staffing levels for equipment inspectors - any inaction by the utility on that front would automatically be considered “prudent” and any liabilities incurred could be passed on to ratepayers. Utilities are already required to have safety and wildfire mitigation plans. Although there’s nothing wrong with seeking improved safety measures in light of increased wildfire risk, this proposal seems particularly dangerous.

Nor should lawmakers sacrifice the protection that inverse condemnation provides those whose property is damaged by fire, or the incentives it gives utilities to ensure that their equipment doesn’t start fires. We welcome a reexamination of how California prepares for wildfires and pays for the aftermath, so long as the Legislature doesn’t let utilities off the hook and leave ratepayers holding the bill.


July 18

The Mercury News on region not being able to afford to lose four hospitals:

Here we go again.

Nearly three years after the financially beleaguered Daughters of Charity made a deal that kept four Bay Area hospitals afloat, the current operators, Verity Health System, said last week that they can’t make their financing work and that the hospitals may be put up for sale.

It’s a potential health care disaster for Santa Clara County and San Mateo County residents if any significant number of the hospitals’ 924 beds were no longer available. The four hospitals also provide significant care to the region’s low-income patients. It’s essential that the two counties do everything possible to keep the hospitals operating in their historic roles.

Verity Health runs O’Connor Hospital (358 beds) in San Jose, Saint Louise Regional Hospital (93 beds) in Gilroy, Seton Medical Center (357 beds) in Daly City and Seton Coastside (116 beds) in Moss Beach, near Half Moon Bay. It also operates two Southern California hospitals, further complicating any potential sale, since presumably Verity would prefer to make a package deal.

Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith said Monday that the county was still interested in buying O’Connor and Saint Louise hospitals. It’s unfortunate that the county’s bid three years ago was not accepted. Purchasing the two hospitals would be a win-win for county residents.

Santa Clara County already has a shortage of hospital beds for its nearly 2 million residents. Its 1.7 beds per thousand residents is well below the national average of 2.4 per thousand, which is hardly ideal in an area prone to severe earthquakes. If O’Connor and Saint Louise close or no longer serve low-income residents, the county would have no choice but to build additional beds.

Buying O’Connor and Saint Louise won’t be cheap, but it pales compared to the cost of adding more beds, given the region’s high land and construction costs. Three years ago the county estimated that it would cost taxpayers an estimated $500 million to refurbish the 100 beds in its old, main building at Valley Medical Center.

The San Mateo County situation poses an even bigger challenge, since it is not well positioned to buy either of the Seton hospitals. If a buyer can’t be found, the state should ensure that the county has sufficient time to make a strategic, long-term health care plan before allowing either hospital to close.

Three years ago, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris demanded that any deal must keep all but one of the six hospitals open for six years, maintain Med-Cal contracts and services at each site for 10 years and provide charity care at historic levels. Current AG Xavier Becerra should hold any purchaser of the six hospitals to the same conditions.

Industry consolidation and the continued shift to outpatient care remains a major challenge for hospitals. California already has the fewest emergency room services per capita of any state in the nation. It’s imperative that the region strive to keep O’Connor, Saint Louise, Seton Medical Center and Seton Coastside open to meet residents’ health care needs.


July 17

The Sacramento Bee on California Republicans’ reaction to Trump-Putin summit:

California House Republicans are cowards.

That’s the inescapable conclusion from their pitiful reaction to President Donald Trump’s capitulation to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Some prominent national Republicans joined the chorus of outrage against Trump for not standing up for American democracy and not backing U.S. intelligence agencies, which have unanimously concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump.

But nine California Republicans seeking re-election in contested House districts couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Trump by name.

“Putin cannot be trusted. Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections is undeniable and unacceptable,” tweeted Rep. Mimi Walters of Irvine, assiduously not mentioning the candidate for whose benefit Russia had meddled.

“Failure to acknowledge Russian interference in our election undermines the unanimous assessments of the U.S. intelligence community as well as the bipartisan findings of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees,” Rep. David G. Valadao of Hanford said in a statement, as if the president who committed that failure were somehow nameless.

When the San Francisco Chronicle contacted the offices of the nine Republicans, seven issued statements, and six of them found a way to respond without saying the T-word. Meanwhile, Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove actually defended Trump, saying the president was right to give Putin’s denials equal weight with U.S. intelligence.

“I don’t think insulting Putin at a joint press conference would have contributed to better relations with Russia,” McClintock said in a statement.

If they won’t say a negative word about Trump after his pathetic performance Monday for fear that the president’s supporters will punish them at the polls, when will they ever?

That’s the definition of political cowardice. By failing to stand up against their president, they are failing to stand up for their country.

In full damage control mode, Trump finally acknowledged Tuesday that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election and declared that he has full faith in U.S. intelligence agencies. But he still wouldn’t specifically criticize Putin.

And even though he read from a statement, Trump undercut and contradicted what he called a clarification by wrongly claiming that he had said many times that he supports U.S. intelligence and repeating that the Russian interference didn’t have any impact on the election results. And in one particularly tortured and implausible explanation, Trump asserted that when he said Monday that he didn’t see any reason why it would be Russia interfering, he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.

After two years of denials and lies, it’s far too little, too late from the president. And it’s certainly not enough to take Congress off the hook.

It’s long past time that congressional Republicans from California and elsewhere must back up any critical words with action.

Republicans who control Congress could protect special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation that is trying to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016. They could demand that the White House seek the extradition of the 12 Russian intelligence agents who were indicted last week by Mueller. They could increase funding for grants to states to better protect their election systems. They could even tighten sanctions on Russia for its suspected poisonings in Britain.

But unless Republicans suddenly grow a political backbone, they will do nothing of the sort. These nine California districts could determine whether Democrats retake the House.

This is one of those pivotal moments in America’s history. Voters should closely watch what their elected representatives do - and act accordingly on Nov. 6.


July 14

Ventura County Star on homeless shelter miracle:

It’s easy to take a “believe it when we see it” attitude toward longtime efforts to open a permanent homeless shelter in west Ventura County. Two years ago, we editorialized on the efforts’ sluggish pace, saying a shelter would be “a slow-developing miracle. Very slow. Glacially slow.”

After recent actions by the Ventura City Council and others, however, we are finally starting to believe. We may see this much-needed facility sooner rather than later - possibly even this year - and would be remiss to not recognize these significant steps forward.

The council unanimously voted Monday to proceed with plans to open a shelter in a county-owned building at 2323 Knoll Drive, in an industrial area of south Ventura. Oxnard also is moving forward on plans for a shelter, looking for a site in a commercial/industrial area. Both cities would receive financial and other assistance from the county.

The shelters can’t come soon enough. This year’s homeless count in Ventura County was almost 13 percent higher than in 2017. Oxnard and Ventura accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 1,299 homeless counted.

Meanwhile, a state auditor report released in April found California had the highest rate of unsheltered homeless in the nation. About 82 percent of our homeless youth are unsheltered, compared with 38 percent nationwide. That is a disgrace.

Under current plans, Ventura’s shelter would offer only 55 beds and Oxnard’s 100 to 150, but both would have the ability to expand during emergencies, officials say. The need here is certainly greater than that, but the two shelters represent a solid first step toward providing transitional housing for the less fortunate among us.

The county Health Care Agency currently uses the four-story Knoll Drive building and would vacate at least one of the lower floors to make room for the shelter. The county would lease the space to the city for a minimal amount, perhaps $1 per year. An outside operator would be sought to run the shelter, with homeless clients referred by county and other agencies (no “walk-ins”).

Ventura council members rightfully had fiscal concerns but did not let them stand in the way of progress. The city has allocated $600,000 to open the shelter and will contribute additional money for operating costs. The county has pledged a similar amount, including the value of the reduced lease.

Establishing facilities like this also may help the cities and county take advantage of a new influx of state money to fight homelessness. The state last year approved a package of housing bills, including a new fee on real estate transactions, that will generate more than $100 million this year, and an additional $1.5 billion has been proposed for 2019 matching grants for city and county homelessness programs.

At Monday’s meeting, Ventura Interim City Manager Dan Paranick called on the community to support the shelter project, and we echo that plea. The city plans to reach out to surrounding property and business owners, and we urge them to avoid the knee-jerk NIMBYism that has sunk similar efforts over the years.

At the same time, we believe the cities and county need to move forward with due haste. It’s been nearly three years since members of the Ventura faith and social services communities met with The Star Editorial Board in frustration over city inaction on the homeless issue, and many more years since a shelter was proposed. Every day of delay means an additional night on the streets for the homeless.

Finally, we hope other cities will step up and follow Oxnard, Ventura and the county’s lead. Ventura Councilman Mike Tracy was right to note Monday that “this is a regional problem.” This year’s count found homeless people in all 10 of the county’s cities, and any comprehensive solution must be regional in scope.


July 13

The San Diego Union-Tribune on California’s housing crisis:

As bad as the housing crisis is in San Diego, there are regular, jaw-dropping reminders from San Francisco and Silicon Valley that the problem is much worse there. One came in April, when a condemned, mildew-ridden home in Fremont with holes in the roof sold for $1.23 million. Another came last month, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that families in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties who made as much as $117,400 a year were eligible to live in low-income housing projects.

Now the newly elected mayor of San Francisco has supplied another reminder. In her inaugural speech Wednesday, London Breed, 43, noted that she had never been able to afford buying a house in her hometown - even though her last job, as a city-county supervisor, paid well over $100,000 a year.

That may change now that Breed makes about $336,000 a year as mayor. But housing remains a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of her constituents. A November article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed how housing costs had so impoverished local teachers that even an 11 percent raise over three years was unlikely to stem the exodus of young teachers to less expensive communities. The same exit is likely for those in many other professions as well, barring dramatic changes.

“So many of my friends have left San Francisco. I don’t want to see this happen to the next generation,” Breed said Wednesday while promising to make addressing the housing crisis a top priority.

Californians should wish Breed good luck - and hope the state Legislature keeps trying to make adding housing stock easier. That’s because much of the rest of the Golden State is on track to be as squeezed as San Francisco is now.

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