Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Financing Scheme Approved for Green Energy Upgrades

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

EMERYVILLE -- When Jeff Silver decided to redo the heating and hot water systems in his Emeryville home, the $32,000 price tag seemed way out of reach. 

But through CaliforniaFIRST, a new state-sponsored program for energy efficiency financing that went live Tuesday in 17 counties, Silver was able to buy and install the equipment he needed with no money down and tack the payments on to his yearly property taxes with payments spread out over 15 years. 

In the Bay Area, the program is now available in Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Contra Costa County should join by the end of the year. 

CaliforniaFIRST allowed him to buy and install two natural gas heaters, one for his upstairs tenants and one for his unit, and an on-demand water heater. Financing can be extended to 20 years. 

"I couldn't have come up with $32,000," said Silver, who was part of an earlier pilot program, as officials announced the formal launch of CaliforniaFIRST at his home. "There was one heater for both units in this house and the temperature was controlled by the tenant upstairs, so now we each have our own heater. This is great. It allowed me to do all the upgrades at once." 

The new program is overseen by a consortium of local governments and financed by Renewable Funding of Oakland, which has $300 million to lend to homeowners at rates slightly less than a home-equity loan, or about 7 percent a year, said Cisco DeVries, CEO and co-founder of Renewable Funding, the financing company that manages CaliforniaFIRST. 

A homeowner needs a minimum of $5,000 in projects to get financing. There's a long list of allowable projects homeowners can finance through the program, but they include solar panels, electric car charging stations, drip irrigation systems, home insulation projects, fans, new doors and windows, skylights and heating and air conditioning. 

DeVries came up with the idea while working as an aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates in 2008. He said he told Bates he had a crazy idea for making green energy more affordable. Bates backed him all the way. 

With DeVries' idea, Berkeley started a small program with 13 homes and got projects financed with the idea of taking the program statewide. But then the mortgage crisis hit and federal and state regulators put it on hold because they were wary of approving any kind of new home financing schemes, DeVries said. 

Since then, DeVries continued working on it, convincing 17 counties in California to join the program and working with state and federal regulators to make it happen. Some other counties were already doing similar programs, he said. 

"It's been a long time coming," DeVries said. "We just kept at it." 

The program also is available to businesses. 

State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, on hand for the rollout Tuesday, said she is pushing a bill through the Legislature that will make it "cheaper and quicker for them." 

Bates was also at Silver's house to roll out the program. 

"It was really creative thinking on Cisco's part and it made a lot of sense," Bates said. "We cooked it up in my office. I saw it as getting financing in an affordable manner." 

Charter School Can Stay Open Judge Rules; Founder Was Alleged to Have Siphoned Funds

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- An Alameda County judge ruled that a high-performing Oakland charter school can stay open and that the school district erred in revoking its charter in 2013 after it alleged that founder Ben Chavis funneled $3.8 million to himself through school contracts. 

The school district, its school board and former Superintendent Tony Smith applied the wrong standard of law when it revoked the charter of American Indian Model Schools, Judge Evelio Grillo said in a July 17 ruling. 

Grillo said the district failed to consider academic performance as the most important factor in revoking the charter as required by state education law. In the ruling, Grillo noted that the American Indian middle school had the highest Academic Performance Index for all of Alameda County in 2012 and was the fourth-highest performing middle school in the state that year. 

Grillo's ruling, spurred by a school lawsuit against the school district, tosses out the school district's revocation and puts proceedings back in the hands of the school district. 

"Basically, we're just pleased this is over with and we can stop spending a lot of money on lawyers, and we can get back to putting energy into educating children," said Alice Spearman, secretary to the AIMS school board and a former Oakland school board member who lost her seat in a November 2012 election. 

Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint said the school board and the administration has not yet decided what to do next and that the district is disappointed at the ruling. 

"But we respect the ruling and appreciate that it affirmed OUSD's claim of serious financial wrongdoing at AIMS," Flint said. "Ultimately, the judge determined that the strong test score performance at AIMS outweighed the concerns raised by misuse of public funds for personal enrichment." 

Spearman defended Chavis, who she said still has three children at the school and is still friends with some of the administrators and teachers but is not involved in day-to-day operations. 

"There were allegations the school district made that were never proven, that's the sad part about it," Spearman said. "They made all these allegations about fiscal impropriety, but nothing was proved. From my standpoint it was almost like a personal vendetta against Ben by the Oakland school board." 

When it revoked the charter and tried to shut the school down, the district instead focused on the financial misdeeds of Chavis. The FBI and the IRS opened a criminal investigation into the schools and Chavis last year, and agents served search warrants, taking away records from the schools and his mother-in-law's home. 

No charges have yet been filed. 

A state of California audit, performed in June 2012, found that Chavis misappropriated school funds and broke state laws, including the Political Reform Act, when he directed the school to hire his companies. The audit also found that upon learning about the alleged financial misdeeds, the AIMS board did not make significant changes or take any measures to recover the funds. It was later revealed that one of the board members resided in Chavis' home. 

Spearman said since the school district first moved to revoke the charter in the spring of 2013, the school hired a charter management corporation to oversee the schools' financial dealings and it bought the downtown Oakland building from Chavis that houses the elementary school "just to make sure we separated ourselves from him." 

Berkeley Clears Homeless Camp, Hauls Away 1,000 Pounds of Trash

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- A homeless camp under Interstate 80 at Gilman Street has been scrubbed clean of trash, belongings and residents, who scattered to surrounding areas after a city cleanup Friday morning. 

The camp grew from a couple of long-term residents to about a dozen in May after the city of Albany forced out a group of homeless from waterfront property nearby. 

"People are now scattered around, and we're trying to pick up the pieces, so it's much harder trying to help them and get them into housing now," said Osha Neumann, a homeless advocate and attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center. 

Berkeley had warned residents of the camp that if they did not clean up the area, which included human waste, rats and trash, that the city would remove the trash and belongings there. 

On Monday, the area was empty. 

After the cleanup on Friday, City Manager Christine Daniel told the City Council in a memo that public works crews picked up "1,000 pounds of garbage, rotting food, hypodermic needles and other debris that had created a significant harborage for rodents and raised substantial health and safety concerns." 

The memo also said that about 30 cubic yards of items "that appeared to be of value and were left behind" were stored and are available to be claimed at the city's garbage transfer station. 

A similar memo from Daniel on July 15 said that since the beginning of May, police were called to the camp six times for robbery, trespassing, suspicious circumstances and the report of a man down. In addition, there was an arrest for drug possession, and a parolee was arrested for possession of a pellet gun, Daniel said. There were also three arrests for outstanding warrants. 

Neumann said the dozen or so residents who were living under the freeway moved nearby. A few went to a strip of land next to the Gilman Street offramp. "One guy went to the Berkeley Marina, we got one guy into temporary housing and one guy (who was ready to get into housing) came into our offices today," Neumann said. 

Daniel's Friday memo to the City Council said city staff had been working with people in the camp to find housing, and some even got "financial subsidies to support housing costs." 

She said the city will continue to work with people to find housing. 

In Bid for Survival, School Garden Grows Business Plan

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- Four hundred and 50 pounds of tomatoes, 300 pounds of tomatillos, 20 pounds of lettuce a week and 950 pizzas. 

That's the rough yearly output of Willard Middle School's 15,000-foot school garden, which is going into business this year to keep its cooking and gardening curriculum afloat, following federal budget cuts a year and a half ago that wiped out all of its $180,000 yearly budget. 

The school, which has integrated its garden into the school curriculum for 17 years now, is partnering with UC Berkeley business school students and high school students to sell food from the garden -- including eggs laid by school chickens -- to raise money for the cash strapped program. 

Last month the school board bought the pitch by Willard Gardening Director Matt Tsang, and the Growing Leaders pilot program is getting off the ground. 

"It will be challenging," Tsang said. "My hope is for kids to apply some of the skills they are learning in school to the gardening." 

Officials at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley hope the program will "provide nutritional, environmental, entrepreneurial and financial literacy education," according to a letter from the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at the school to the Berkeley school board. 

Tsang said the school district funds just $23,000 of his $180,000 a year budget, which includes supplies and five part-time gardening and cooking instructors. This school year donations and grants brought in about $157,000, but Tsang said he needed at least part of his budget to be more stable. He thinks by selling take away meals like pizzas, chili verde and egg dishes, students could bring in about $30,000. 

All 550 students at the school take the cooking and gardening classes at Willard. Some of those students, for example, "will have to come up with a garden budget and decide how much to grow," Tsang said. 

Others might bring the lettuce the school grows to restaurants and be responsible for calculating invoices and tracking inventory. 

The plan by the business school is to open the Willard Farm Store to sell produce from the garden and sell take away dinners twice a month for $25 each. It also includes bringing in high school students to act as mentors to the middle school entrepreneurs. 

In addition to all that financial literacy and math, there's a practical side to it, too. Trew Rodgers, 15, was getting a taste of it Wednesday as she took a break from a summer gardening program to make some banana bread in the school cooking classroom. 

"I've learned how to take care of my own garden and cook new things," Rodgers said. "I learned how to cook all different kinds of greens, and this is the first time I've ever cooked banana bread." 

Tsang said getting the school board to approve his pilot program was all about "allowing us to be more innovative in our strategy to fund this thing, and they agreed." 

Will Berkeley Tax Soft Drinks to Discourage Consumption?

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- Voters in November will weigh a new 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soft-drink distributors in the city as a way of discouraging sugar consumption and improving health, following a unanimous City Council vote to place the item on the ballot. 

The soft-drink industry and backers of the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax already are gearing up for a fight over whether the drinks cause health problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer, and whether a tax will discourage people from buying and drinking the sugary beverages. 

Councilwoman Linda Maio said the group Berkeley vs. Big Soda likely will spend "a couple hundred thousand" dollars trying to get the measure passed between now and November. 

"We know the soft-drink industry is going to put in millions, but we can't counter that," Maio said. "So it's going to be a grass-roots campaign. We know who our people are. It's just a matter of reaching out door to door." 

Roger Salazar, spokesman for the group Californians for Food and Beverage Choice, which is spearheaded by the American Beverage Association, said he's not sure how much his organization will spend. 

"We haven't gotten to that point yet," Salazar said. "We'll see what we have to do. These kinds of taxes we know won't change behavior. This is a regressive tax on common grocery items, and it won't make people in Berkeley any healthier." 

The tax will need a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote to pass. In March, the City Council polled 503 Berkeley voters, finding that 66 percent said they would vote for the tax. 

Richmond tried to put a soda tax on the ballot in 2012, but the initiative was resoundingly defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. 

If Berkeley's measure passes, the money collected won't go directly into any kind of health-related fund. A Sugar Sweetened Beverage Product Panel, whose members will be medical professionals appointed by the City Council, will make recommendations on how to fund programs to reduce the consumption of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks. 

"Our goal is to tax the industry and then follow the oversight committee's advice," Maio said. 

During Tuesday's council meeting, about a dozen speakers lined up to talk in favor of the measure, with three speaking against it. 

One of those against the measure is Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theatres, which has 50 movie theaters across the country, including in Berkeley. 

"We operate two businesses here to the tune of $4 million in income," Mundorff said. "If we could solve obesity and diabetes with a 1 cent tax, I would say, 'Bring it on -- let's do 2 cents.' But it's not going to do anything but hurt business." 

Lynn Silver, a pediatrician and a senior adviser at Public Health Institute in Oakland, disagreed. 

"What you are proposing is a chronic disease prevention best buy of all time," Silver said. "It puts the burden on the right people making extraordinary profits pushing this stuff on our families." 

Mayor Tom Bates closed discussion on the item by urging backers of the measure to be prepared for a big fight. 

"There's going to be lots of opposition and lies, and they are going to be sending people door to door with misinformation," Bates said. "This is not the end; it's the beginning." 

New Oakland Schools Chief Ready to Make Tough Decisions

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- Like a large number of the 37,000 public school students here who are now under his care, Antwan Wilson grew up poor with just a single teenage mom to guide him. 

Oakland's new superintendent of schools officially starts his job Tuesday, July 1. He made the leap from Denver where he was for five years an assistant superintendent at Denver Public Schools, a district more than twice the size of Oakland's. 

"Having been a young person who was in a single parent household with a teenage mother growing up poor, Oakland resonates with me," Wilson, 42, said. "There's a passion." 

Wilson takes over from Gary Yee, a former school board member who gave up his seat to serve as superintendent while the board searched for a permanent replacement for Tony Smith, who quit in June 2013 and moved to Chicago. 

Wilson has a challenge to turn around the perennially troubled district. . 

He is inheriting a district with students scarred by the city's unrelenting daily violence that often spills over onto school campuses. And a large number of Oakland schools have been failing academically for decades. Last year 33 of the district's 86 schools -- 38 percent -- were ranked at the very bottom of California's Academic Performance Index. 

The district's bureaucracy is so dysfunctional, according to a recent Alameda County grand jury report, it can't complete state financial audits because it is unable to find its own records. In April district staff drew up a budget approved by top administrators with revenue projections that were off by nearly $70 million. 

"I love challenge," Wilson said. "But I also see opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people who need education the most." 

Wilson said turning around such a large organization involves "identifying talented people, recruiting them and supporting them and not ceding ground to high expectations." 

He hasn't wasted any time. On June 25 the school board approved a $157,500 contract for Bernard McCune, a Wilson colleague from Denver, to head a newly created department focusing on getting kids ready for careers and college. 

The new department, called the Office of Post Secondary Readiness, is the office Wilson ran in Denver for five years. 

"I recruited him from Chicago to Denver and now I've recruited him to Oakland," Wilson said of McCune. "Anywhere I go, I am going to focus on post secondary readiness. If I was going to Mars, I would have an office of post secondary readiness." 

Wilson said a key to raising the graduation rate in Oakland from its current 62 percent is to make sure students understand why their education is important. 

"Most kids who don't graduate don't understand why they need to," Wilson said. "If they don't graduate, they might be able to get a job, but they are really going to struggle with getting a career." 

Van Schoales, CEO of an educational advocacy group called A + Denver, said Wilson's success in Oakland will depend largely on the people he hires. "I think sometimes folks are looking for heroes and that this guy is superman because he's turned high schools around and he did x, y and z," Schoales said. "But the reality is that he was part of a team. It's not all Antwan, and it's not going to be whomever your next pick for superintendent is. It's going to be what kind of team you build." 

Schoales said the Denver team that included Wilson has been successful with underperforming schools because it brought in charters that helped "all boats rise," and because he was not afraid to ask for help, including from outside nonprofits that helped with management. 

Wilson's former boss, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who said he's sorry to see Wilson go. 

"If you said five years ago 'here's what I'm going to do in Denver: cut the dropout rate in half, increase on time graduation rate by 20 points, and cut suspensions and expulsions by more than half,' a lot of people would have said 'be serious.' He led those initiatives and he did it," Boasberg said. "Oakland could not be getting a finer leader in superintendent." 

In Oakland, falling enrollment has left the district with too many schools that waste money on both labor and capital costs, according to the grand jury report. When asked if he would close schools either because they were under-enrolled or underperforming academically, Wilson said options have to include a strategy to improve a school "and if they don't improve then we have a different program, different leadership. The school building is just a building." 

Whatever Wilson does in his tenure here, the hope and expectations are high. 

"I don't know much about him, but I'm very optimistic," said Brian Rogers, executive director of the Rogers Family Foundation whose sole mission is to better Oakland public schools. "There is an understanding in the district that it can't do business as usual. We have at least 25 schools that for decades have operated in the lowest ranking in the state. And even though Oakland is in the position it is in, I truly believe there is a group in the school district who are beginning to come together around a plan for transformation." 

California Officials Nearly Powerless to Limit Highly Flammable Crude Oil Shipments by Train

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- California agencies have very little authority to regulate a massive increase in crude oil shipments by rail, and only now are they realizing the magnitude of the potentially explosive situation, according to state officials speaking Wednesday at a workshop sponsored by the California Energy Commission. 

"It's a wake up call when you look at the projections," said commission Chair Robert Weisenmiller. "We have to plan for the worst case." 

Only in the last month, thanks to an order by the U.S. Department of Transportation, have railroads begun to disclose to the state Office of Emergency Services shipments of 1million gallons or more of highly flammable Bakken crude oil. Before that happened May 7, nobody knew anything about the shipments or where they were going, Weisenmiller said. 

Crude oil rail shipments have increased 506 percent in 2013 to 6.3 million barrels, according to a report by the state Interagency Rail Safety Working Group released June 10. That number could increase to 150 million barrels of oil in 2016, it said. Petroleum spills on railroads in California increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013, according to the Office of Emergency Services. 

In California, crude goes by rail to the cities of Richmond, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Carson, Long Beach and Vernon, according to the energy commission. 

The only thing state and local governments can do to try and prevent a catastrophic disaster is to enforce federal rules and prepare local first responders, officials said. The regulatory effort falls on the California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey. 

"I'm not enthusiastic about having tens of thousands of tank cars running around California because accidents are inevitable," Peevey said at the workshop. "There's been a huge increase in volume and we have to step up our awareness and activities, in cooperation with the federal government, but the feds have the ultimate responsibility." 

The commission recently added seven rail safety inspectors who look at rail cars, railroad lines, bridges and shipping requirements, bringing the total to 59 inspectors statewide, which Peevey said was adequate for this year. 

Peevey dismissed criticism that the PUC has been too easy on industry it is supposed to regulate, and assured the public it is up to the task. 

"We've been pretty darn tough," he said. 

Weisenmiller said the state first needs to identify the areas most at risk for crashes and make sure the tracks are maintained. He acknowledged there is no way to prevent shipments from coming into the state, but the state can "get its act together and reach out to communities near rail lines and provide first responders with information and technical expertise," so they can respond to an accident. 

As the state tries to catch up and wrap its collective mind around the increased shipments, oil companies are attempting to add projects that would bring in more oil by rail. 

Valero Refining Co. is planning on 100 cars per day to its Benicia facility by the first quarter of 2015; West Pac Energy is planning 70 cars per day to a facility in Pittsburg; Phillips 66 is planning a crude-by-rail project in Santa Maria that could bring shipments through the Bay Area; Alon USA is planning 200 cars a day in Bakersfield and Plains All American is planning for 200 cars a day in Bakersfield, according to the Oil by Rail Safety in California report. 

Union Pacific Railroad Spokeswoman Liisa Lawson Stark said the company is not transporting any Bakken crude into the state, but it is bringing in other types of oil. 

But Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is bringing in nine full train loads of Bakken per month into California, said spokeswoman LaDonna DiCamillo. She did not know how many tank cars each train has or what the actual volume is. 

Lawson Stark said that even though railroads are now required to report shipments of the highly flammable Bakken crude oil to the Office of Emergency Services, the information most likely will not be available to the public. A spokesman for the office did not immediately return phone calls.