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Homelessness, water and public safety loom large in Stanislaus, Withrow says in speech

Stanislaus County board of supervisors chairman Terry Withrow makes the State of the County address on Tuesday morning March 5, 2019 in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto, Calif.
Stanislaus County board of supervisors chairman Terry Withrow makes the State of the County address on Tuesday morning March 5, 2019 in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

In his state-of-the-county speech Tuesday, Board of Supervisors Chairman Terry Withrow touched on the dominant issues of the past year: water, homelessness and public safety.

Sometimes, the annual speech by Stanislaus County’s top elected official introduces an initiative or a new direction for the county. But Withrow was more intent on pushing long-term efforts such as Focus on Prevention and justifying a growing amount of money and resources invested in projects to reduce homelessness.

Withrow praised a Community Assessment, Response & Engagement team (CARE) that engages homeless people whose disturbing behavior stands out or triggers calls for police. In six months, the CARE team has contacted 92 of 143 targeted individuals, referring 28 to shelter or housing and linking 50 to services helping them with mental health, medical issues or substance abuse.

“This team is out daily and making good progress on getting these people off the street,” Withrow said.

The chairman also highlighted a temporary outreach and engagement office in downtown Modesto, opened in 2017; the outdoor emergency shelter made up of weatherproof tents under the Ninth Street Bridge; and a new project with Salvation Army and Modesto for a 180-bed low-barrier shelter and homeless services center.

The low-barrier shelter and access center will cost millions of dollars in upfront costs and operating expenses.

“The key to success with our homeless is not just locating temporary shelters, the answer is in getting them into services that can transition them back into our community as productive citizens,” Withrow stressed.

Tuesday’s speech was light on boasting about recent progress in a fight with the state over flows for salmon in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. At the direction of Gov. Gavin Newsom, state agencies recently submitted to the State Water Board a bundle of voluntary agreements negotiated with Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and other districts whose waters feed the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

In the coming months, the state board led by a more moderate chairman will review the tentative agreements and decide if they’re a suitable replacement for aggressive flow requirements approved by the board in December.

MID, TID and other districts have charged in lawsuits that the 40 percent river flow requirements will devastate agriculture. Withrow said part of the fight is now in the courts and it’s hoped the State Water Board will accept the more reasonable voluntary agreements.

“We are hopeful that a negotiated settlement agreement can be achieved, one that meets somewhere in the middle that both sides can live with,” he said.

To bolster law enforcement, the Sheriff’s Department is getting close to a full complement of 180 sworn deputies. A multiyear commitment of $8 million from the county has restored almost 85 positions across the district attorney, probation, public defender and sheriff offices.

Starting in April, sheriff deputies could be wearing body cameras to record incidents in the field. “The program will improve public safety through enhanced operational transparency and accountability,” Withrow said.

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Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.
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