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Friday, February 5, 2010

Lai-Bitker Paints State of a County in Disarray

SUPERVISOR SPEAKS BLUNTLY; DETAILS SIGNS OF LIFE ON THE HORIZON
By STEVEN TAVARES 
The Citizen 
Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, in her final State of the County address, made a blunt assessment for the year ahead: things are  only going to get worse.

Part of Lai-Bitker's frank remarks may stem from her abrupt announcement last December she would not seek re-election to the seat she has held since 2000. "Twenty-ten will be one of the most challenging years in recent memory. Balancing the county budget will be a monumental task," said Lai-Bitker. "This budget will lead to staff reductions and program cuts. There's no way around this fact."

She told the rather large gathering at the San Leandro Library Thursday night many county services would be affected by the budget crunch this year. Reductions in staff and funding will make it more difficult for residents to access county programs. Road repairs will be delayed and safety improvement projects will be put on hold, she said.

Here is more bad news: after the Board of Supervisors closed a $178 million budget gap last year--the largest ever--Lai-Bitkers says the county has very little wiggle room to make further cuts this year. "Vital health and social services and other safety net services are already at levels that threaten the quality of life of all county residents," she said.

According to Lai-Bitker, the levels of demand for MediCal, CalWorks, food stamps and general assistance are at record highs along with a precipitous 2 percent drop in property assessment and property values at almost half of what they were just 3 years ago. She also noted the state government's grab for over $3.7 billion in local funds has made things worse for the county; a common refrain heard from many municipalities across the state.

"I know my colleagues in the cities, school boards and special districts agree with me when I say that we cannot afford to use more of our limited discretionary property tax dollars to a state government that will not take the steps needed to solve structural budget problems," said Lai-Bitker. "We must continue to advocate strongly for responsible fiscal solutions and preservation of  local funding for local needs."

She also criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's planned cuts to CalWorks and in-home services for the elderly while saying the $46 million in federal stimulus dollars is not enough. "What will happen in Sacramento is not at all certain," said Lai-Bitker. "With limited options, the county is bracing for employee layoffs and service cuts.

There is some reason for optimism amid dire economic despair, she said. The county attracted more venture capital in the last quarter of 2009. More than any other area outside of California and more than the entire states of Massachusetts and Texas, she said. Much of the investment in the East Bay came by way of alternative energy firms luring $364 million in funding led by San Leandro solar panel maker, Solyndra.

In addition, Lai-Bitker also featured vibrant county attractions including  new restaurants and investment in Oakland's Jack London Square, San Leandro's award-winning transit-oriented downtown plan and Alameda's Park Street along with the sounds of construction projects continuing despite a recession.

She said she hopes to continue efforts to move forward with revitalizing San Lorenzo's downtown area along with improvements to its library along with efforts to find a solution for the future of San Leandro Hospital.

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