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Stanislaus board chairman calls for efforts to protect water supplies, benefit youths

Vanessa Contreras, 13, left, and Melissa Alvarez, 14, play volleyball at the After School Education and Safety Program at Hanshaw Middle School in Modesto on Tuesday.
Vanessa Contreras, 13, left, and Melissa Alvarez, 14, play volleyball at the After School Education and Safety Program at Hanshaw Middle School in Modesto on Tuesday. cwinterfeldt@mercedsunstar.com

In his “State of the County” address Tuesday, Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Terry Withrow rallied the community in an ongoing struggle with the state over water.

He said the State Water Resources Control Board plans to require larger flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to benefit salmon at the expense of farmers and cities in the region. Historically diverted into irrigation canals, that surface water supports the area’s farm-based economy and helps to replenish groundwater, he stressed.

“Powerful interest groups have looked at us with envy for years, but they are no longer just looking,” Withrow said, alluding to the coveted water rights of local irrigation districts. “We must negotiate, not as individual agencies, but as a region, to arrive at an amount of increased flows that will be acceptable to both state and local entities.”

Withrow will lead the county this year as it builds a Public Safety Center expansion, adding 480 jail beds and medical facilities for prisoners. But the expansion costing almost $90 million in state and local funds is another example of government spending huge sums to treat what Withrow called “the symptoms.”

The chairman related the “Tale of Scott” to emphasize a new effort to strike at the cause of social decay.

Scott was a 7-year-old boy recovered from the vehicle of a drunk driver that was stuck in a field west of Modesto two weeks before Christmas. Withrow, who followed the emergency response to the scene, tried to imagine the boy’s future that night and is now leading a prevention campaign to help young people and build stronger families.

Withrow said it will cost the county $750,000 if Scott works his way from Child Protective Services to foster care, juvenile justice and adult detention. He said 450 children caught in the same cycle will cost taxpayers $343 million over 10 years.

Scott could have a rewarding life if he has a role model at home, earns a high school diploma and goes to college or learns a trade, Withrow said.

The county plans to get different sectors of the community involved in the program called “Focus on Prevention 2015.” The program will create intervention projects including faith-based organizations, arts and entertainment, the media, nonprofit groups, education, business, neighborhoods, philanthropy and government.

“This is not a new government plan that we’re going to throw millions of dollars at,” Withrow said. “It’s actually that mentality that got us into this situation.”

John Ervin, founder and director of the Project Uplift youth mentoring program, said after the speech that he’s discussed ideas with Withrow. He noted that it cost $24,000 a year to run a Night Hoops program attended by hundreds of young people in south Modesto.

The program was canceled 10 years ago for lack of funding.

The county is on an unprecedented campaign to expand or rebuild infrastructure. It received $120 million in state money to build detention and program facilities for inmates on Hackett Road and also is working on the Kiernan Avenue-Highway 99 interchange, bridge replacements, a new coroner’s facility and a rebuild of the Public Works center on Morgan Road near Ceres.

Withrow drafted a 3,000-word speech, which called for stronger relationships between the county and its nine cities. Those local agencies need to cost-effectively deliver services funded by taxpayers, but “we need to stop fighting over which agency receives those tax dollars,” Withrow said. “While competition is good among the private sector, we in the public sector need to collaborate at every opportunity. We are partners and cannot act as competitors.”

He cited the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program as a fine example of agencies working together. The project including Modesto, Ceres, Turlock and the county proposes to sell and deliver purified wastewater to parched farmland in the Del Puerto Water District of western Stanislaus County.

The local agencies are seeking state and federal funding for the recycling project and won’t charge any costs to city ratepayers, officials have said.

Withrow assured the county is on a strong footing after riding out the Great Recession and a slow recovery. After several years of spending cuts, the county restored salary reductions in negotiations with labor groups last year. It is hiring new deputies and filling critical positions in the Sheriff’s Department.

In response to demand for mental health services, the county opened a 16-bed psychiatric health facility in March 2013, and has teamed with Merced, Tuolumne and three other counties to establish a residential crisis facility. The residential facility funded through the Mental Health Wellness Act will be in Merced County.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

Board of Supervisors Watch

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors took the following action at its meeting Tuesday:

▪ Approved a financing plan for the $15.8 million project to rebuild the Public Works offices and maintenance facility on Morgan Road.

▪ Approved a new labor contract with the Stanislaus County Probation Corrections Officers Association.

▪ Amended an agreement with Welty Engineering for designing campground improvements at Woodward Reservoir.

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