MODESTO — With the region lagging the nation's economic comeback, the leader of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors said Tuesday that creativity and innovation are the keys to recovery.
Board Chairman Vito Chiesa proposed using private industry leaders and community teams to tackle problems such as unemployment, gangs and dropout rates. He delivered his State of the County address to community leaders and local officials in the board chamber at Tenth Street Place.
Chiesa said the community's response to the crisis will be watched by future generations. Six years after the economy tanked, the county's jobless rate remains 15 percent and local agencies contend with rising crime and budget shortfalls.
"We are providing our children and the next generations in our community an instruction manual on how to deal with the challenges that life brings," Chiesa said.
During his speech, he shed a tear in praising the work ethic of his father, Aroldo Chiesa. The senior Chiesa moved from Italy to the United States for a better life, living in a small room on a Hughson farm where he worked. "He was paid $200 a month, and after only one year had saved enough to buy his first car," Chiesa said.
The supervisor said the county's problems are daunting. More than 35,0000 people are out of work, and it's estimated that population growth will produce the need for 26,000 more jobs by 2035. The county's undereducated work force stunts efforts to attract high-paying employers.
Stanislaus also is a county where 5,000 documented gang members are breeding the next generation of street criminals. To emphasize the point, a picture from a boy's first birthday party was projected on the screen; the cake was decorated with foam fingers flashing a gang sign.
Chiesa said he wants to use the skills of business leaders and community teams to work with government, educators, nonprofit organizations, churches and private-
Jeff Burda, president of Modesto Commerce Bank, has agreed to lead an employment expansion initiative, and county Office of Education Superintendent Tom Changnon has promised support, Chiesa said. The effort could explore whether the county has a future as an export center, a health services training center, a Latino business corridor or a hub to develop agricultural businesses.
Chiesa plans to recruit other community leaders for an integrated effort to help students who are falling behind and to come up with strategies to tackle gang problems.
He also talked about the focus of county government for 2013. He called for replenishing reserves so the county is prepared for the next downturn. He suggested a countywide transportation tax to help catch up with road and bridge repairs.
The county's road maintenance shortfall is $14.5 million, a number that could grow to $138 million by 2020, Chiesa said. "We need the private sector to bring back the idea of a countywide transportation tax to our voters," he said.
Roads are not the only transportation priority. The county should support more frequent Amtrak service and an extension of Altamont Commuter Express trains to Stanislaus County locations, Chiesa said.
In regard to public safety, Chiesa said he has asked top law enforcement officials to share crime data among cities and consider making a countywide crime report available to the public.
"Some positive results seem to be occurring in law enforcement, but it's difficult for the public to understand this if we are not publishing our data," he said.
Burda said Tuesday he has not talked extensively with Chiesa about the employment initiative. The valley has a tremendous challenge, and "I am willing to help Vito lay plans for the future," he said.
Cecil Russell, president of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, agreed that solving the county's problems needs to involve a broader collaboration. "It's going to take more organizations to buy into what he talked about today," he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.
STATE OF THE CITY
Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh will deliver his annual State of the City speech today at noon at the DoubleTree Hotel ballroom, 1150 Ninth St. There is limited free seating for those who want to hear the mayor and not pay $40 for the luncheon.