Sher: A breath of fresh air at TRPA

images5I’ve followed the TRPA for years as a Tahoe basin cabin owner and was always disturbed that it didn’t merit more investigative reporting from the local community newspaper — or even bloggers. (I figure it was an issue of resources and institutional knowledge, two big “rocks” in the newsroom of a small-town paper).

You’ve got enough fodder at TRPA — inaction, conflicting policy-making, infighting, conflicts of interest — to shine a light on one of the Sierra’s most important government agencies.

When I read the headline Monday that “Harvard graduate appointed to Tahoe Regional Planning Age…” in the Sierra Sun, I was forced to click on the article to see what it was about. (Please write shorter headlines for the Web; not ones that end in …).

I was pleased to see a press release that Byron Sher, the retired longtime California legislator, was appointed to the TRPA board.

If you know Sher, flaunting a Harvard law degree is not what he’s about. In a low-key style, he helped create some of the state’s major environmental laws over more than two decades.

I met Sher when I was covering the leveraged buyout of Pacific Lumber for the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid- ’80s. Later, he helped lead an effort to preserve old-growth redwoods that otherwise might have been chopped down under Texas owner Charles Hurwitz.

Hurwitz doubled the timber cut of Pacific Lumber to pay down junk-bond debt — a symbol of the excesses of LBOs in the ’80s.

“Of all the legislators we’ve known over 50 years, we rate Byron right at the top,”  Bill Lane of Portola Valley, former publisher of Sunset Magazine, told The Almanac.

As the publication summed up: “Laws bearing his stamp help protect California’s air and waters, reduce garbage going to land fills, encourage recycling, promote renewable energy, and preserve forests. He has also been strong on health and education.”

Sher brings a decidedly environmental bent to the TRPA. I’m OK with that, since I’ve never seen a Lakefront McMansion (and the fees that go with it) that TRPA didn’t like. When you’re sailing on the lake, you can see the glare from the windows.

Sher is from Palo Alto. But unlike around here, the Tahoe basin doesn’t seem to resent “flatlanders” as much. After all, sometimes they bring some experience and talent to the party. Besides, he now lives in El Dorado County.

Sher’s also a deft negotiator — something that is called for in dealing with the cross-fire of politicans and agencies that have their hand in the Tahoe cookie jar.

Lake Tahoe is a national treasure, and the TRPA needs a seasoned and talented leader such as Sher to help protect it.

I hope Sher is profiled in the local media someday soon.

(credit: photo courtesy of smartvoter.org)

Next shoe to drop: states go bankrupt

9-8-08sfp-f1As the recession continues to worsen, the next shoe to drop will be state bankruptcies.

We all know about California’s budget woes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“At least 46 states faced or are facing shortfalls in their budgets for this and/or next year, and severe fiscal problems are highly likely to continue into the following year as well,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Combined budget gaps for the remainder of this fiscal year and state fiscal years 2010 and 2011 are estimated to total more than $350 billion.”

At least 41 states have looked ahead and anticipate deficits for fiscal year 2010 and beyond, according to the group.

Job cuts and furloughs will just exacerbate the problems, putting more people on the street and straining the system. Unemployment in the state and county is expected to creep to 10 percent.

Structural changes in government are needed to get out of the woods — a difficult challenge. Even furloughs, the least painful step, are being fought tooth and nail in California.

It shows how clueless some government workers are about the problems we face.

Our area is so close to the debacle in Sacramento that we can’t help but be impacted: tourists who shop here, and the county being sucked into the vortex of the state’s budget woes (my 1/31 blog post).

Meanwhile, as we sit on our hands, the Dow continues to slide below 8,000. Our retiree’s “nest eggs” continue to diminish, putting a crimp in local spending.

Wish we’d done a better job of diversifying our economy, and more people around here would “get it” that pinning your economy on tourism and retirees makes you vulnerable.

To follow the government financial troubles, go to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It’s a good resource.

Cookin’ on the grill on Super Bowl Sunday

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Hard to see we’re in a recession, judging by the long lines at the supermarket today for Super Bowl Sunday. Neither team is one that most of us root for regularly. (At least one of them is west of the Mississippi).

We’ve been swimming a lot and eating a little, but the Super Bowl calls for something special. The beautiful weather makes the choice a “no brainer”: Fire up the grill.

I cooked a turkey on the spit on the barbeque and slow cooked some ribs on the “Big Green Egg.” As an appetizer, I prepared some shrimp in cilantro and lime marinade. I’ll grill those, too.

We’ll cook some veggies on the grill too.

To wash it down: A bottle of Lucchesi “Tempranillo” from our quarterly wine club selection and, yes, water.

Enjoy the game.

Biggest threat to media: iPhone, Blackberry et al.

“Whiskey” almost reached the door with the hefty New York Times Sunday edition this morning before dropping it on the porch: not bad for a 3-month-old puppy, since the paper is bigger than she is.

I also read newspapers for the ads: Besides the Super Bowl trophy from Tiffany, the full-page color ad for the iPhone at the back of the Times’ “A” section always catches my eye.

If the Times didn’t want to run an ad from a competitor, it probably wouldn’t want to run this one. But at this point, the paper  no doubt would rather collect the more than $100,000 color ad rate.

The iPhone ad showed the “apps” you can get for your iPhone: snow report from 2,000 ski areas; a Yoga workout; Loopt to track (and map) your friends whereabouts in real time; and of course, the Yellow pages. The list of “apps”— much of it original Web content — grows daily.

The ad also didn’t mention you can surf the NY Times (or the Web site of any other paper, radio or TV station for that matter) on 3G.

By contrast, we’re getting the print version of the Times for a reduced rate of $24 a month, not much less than the cost for high-speed Internet access. Internet access is free in some “hot spots.”

Nowadays smart phones are the best tool to get informed, entertained or communicate (in text and video) that I can think of. And it’s “anytime, anywhere.” It’s a whole lifestyle in the palm of your hand — something the media would kill for.

We’ve long been “early adaptors” of technology — having owned an iPhone for three years.

We’re not alone. Barack Omaba is our first president to use a Blackberry in the White House. My son is playing a game on the iPhone this morning while we read the print version of the New York Times.

Newspapers and television are no longer the “one stop shop” for information and entertainment. The best they can hope for now is to provide an “app” for the iPhone or Blackberry for readers to get their content. Too few have done that.

Smartphones also are an achilles heel for community newspapers —the last hope for the business because most are still monopolies.

Most of them dismiss smartphone readers as not being part of a “core” audience. Huh? They represent prime advertising demographics, as well as the younger readers who will make or break newspapers.

As an example, how many people who visit a world-class ski resort (at least the kind upscale advertisers want to reach) get their news on their own smartphone versus the ski town’s community newspaper in print? 

Community newspapers need to move a lot faster to make their content easier to read on a smartphone. Much of their content doesn’t read well on a smartphone — if at all.

The smartphone trend will accelerate despite the recession. Now you can buy an iPhone at WalMart.

P.S. — Enjoy the Super Bowl: I’m hoping Arizona (and Kurt Warner) can pull it out. He has seven children. Wouldn’t that be a boon for Nevada County? A high-paying wage earner and a family with seven children! Ah, he probably lives in a place like Mission Viejo.

County sucked into vortex of state’s woes

The state budget crisis is continuing to hammer our 58 counties. One rural county is operating from paycheck to paycheck, a dire situation, according to my sources.

Nevada County is better off than many but still facing some big challenges. Exisiting proposals call for deferring some state payments to our counties for seven months — worse than last year’s deferrals.

Our county’s biggest areas of concern are Health and Human Services (about $1 million a month of deferral) and Public Works (about $250,000 per month of deferral).

“While our reserves in these operating funds are strong and will cushion these cash flows, the cost of money impact will certainly be significant (well over $100,000),” according to county executive officer Rick Haffey in his weekly memo.

Staffing positions have been reduced from 976 when the current budget was adopted last year to 959.

Votes on the new state budget could occur as early as next Friday.

It’s been a tough week economic-wise:

•Gross domestic product shrank at a 3.8 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the biggest contraction in 26 years.

•The stimulus package passed by the U.S. House is running into opposition because it does not have enough infrastructure spending. The Senate is drafting an alternate package. Meanwhile, the stock market is losing confidence.

•Around here, the sale of Thomson Grass Valley — one of the biggest employers and tax revenue providers — is creating uncertainty. I’m optimistic it will be sold to a qualified buyer. I hope the new buyer will keep the existing operation intact. It will be a real test of how our community (and its touted attributes) are perceived by an outside business.

Prediction: The next two weeks will perk up with votes on a revised stimulus package and state budget. Seems our elected people can’t get it together until the “darkest hour.” How sad.

We’re still in a deepening recession, however. It’s one thing to pass a stimulus package, but it’s quite another for it to begin gaining traction. In short, the patient is still in ER, a long way off from the recovery room.

What does sale of Thomson Grass Valley mean?

I’ll miss the joint dateline of Paris/Nevada City on Thomson Grass Valley press releases. In another release this afternoon, Paris-based Thomson announced it was putting Grass Valley Group up for sale — one of the biggest stories here in a long time. Sacrebleu!

Why? Thursday’s  anouncement could have a profound impact on the local economy:

•It puts 300 jobs at Thomson Grass Valley in jeopardy. Worse, these are the high-paying tech jobs that the county wants to attract, not lose. 

•The announcement puts Nevada City’s already suffering tax base in jeopardy. Thomson Grass Valley is one of the city’s biggest tax providers.

•It also undercuts the area’s image as a “HDTV mecca.” Grass Valley Group specializes in video servers.

The sale also will cause anxiety for the East Coast investor group that just snapped up the 60-acre parcel leased by Grass Valley Group.  It figured its tenant was “rock solid.”

The outcome depends on who buys Grass Valley Group, founded as a tiny startup in 1958. Thomson, whose balance sheet needs help, paid $172 million for privately held Grass Valley Group in 2002.

Let’s hope the buyer decides to keep the company —and its workforce —images here. It has a good product line and has been tightening its belt lately. I also admire how it snapped up the http://www.grassvalley.com domain name, at least as a marketing coup.

“Intellectual capital” is often the best asset of any tech company. On the other hand, companies like to merge operations for “synergy” and cost savings.

This is an outcome to watch carefully: A lot more carefully than the guy  who was recovered from the Yuba River with a bullet wound in his body.