The Year in News: The best of the rest
by James Leonard | Patterson Irrigator
Dec 31, 2009 | 1734 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Water was in short supply on the West Side, as a continued drought and decreased imports from the Delta-Mendota Canal forced farmers to rely on groundwater or leave fields fallow. Elias Funez/Patterson Irrigator
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Three news stories stood out from the rest in Patterson this year, but the town’s centennial, the Del Puerto Health Center and Walmart weren’t the only subjects on the minds of local residents in 2009. Here’s a look at the rest of the year’s biggest stories, in no particular order.

The economy

What subject generated more discussion nationwide than the economy? It was a hot topic in Patterson, as well, but not always for the same reasons.

The recession that began in 2008 certainly continued to hit hard locally. The rash of foreclosures forced more people from their homes and drove down home values.

Patterson’s unemployment rate peaked at 23.4 percent in April and never dropped below 20 percent, hitting 23 percent again in November. The city’s rate was consistently well above the county, state and national unemployment rates throughout 2009.

But the news wasn’t all bad. The lower home prices expanded the market to many lower-income buyers who never would have had a chance in the past. And despite the slumping economy, many new small businesses opened in town. As the year came to a close, Walgreens neared the opening of a new store at Sperry and Ward avenues.

Other good news for job-seekers was more of the long-term variety. W.W. Grainger Inc. broke ground on an 820,000-square-foot distribution center that will lead to an estimated 150 to 200 new jobs in Patterson. Walmart submitted an application and plans for a 158,000-square-foot store it claims would create 300 jobs. But neither of those businesses will be open by the end of 2010.

There are also plans for a 77-acre business park, the Patterson Logistics Center, on the site of the Patterson Airport. But that project has not yet been approved by the city.

Schools

It was a busy year for the Patterson Joint Unified School District, mostly for unfortunate reasons.

State budget cuts, combined with protracted budget negotiations, made it a difficult year for local school officials and an even worse year for teachers and classified staff, some of whom found themselves without jobs.

The school board voted in March to lay off 10 teachers and in April to lay off 10 classified employees. Those numbers were lower than the board’s original recommendations, as negotiations with unions saved many jobs.

But there were pay cuts for teachers and administrators alike, and the budget woes forced the closure of tiny Rising Sun School in Vernalis after a nearly 130-year history. Late in the year, word came that there was no reason to expect 2010 to be any better.

Still, as with the economy as a whole, there were some bright spots. Walnut Grove School opened on the east side of town, and students throughout the district showed improvement on state standardized tests.

Politics

Controversy from the divisive, often heated mayoral election of 2008, in which Mayor Becky Campo beat out challenger Luis Molina, spilled over into 2009.

In January, a 3-2 vote by the City Council led to Molina’s ouster as a planning commissioner. With Campo one of the three votes — and one of two council members on the interview panel that recommended K.D. Rookard and David Applegate over incumbents Molina and Elias Funez — the move raised suspicions that a personal grudge had carried over from the election.

The political waters nearly reached a boil in October, when City Manager Cleve Morris was the subject of a controversial job performance evaluation. The council’s concerns over Morris’ performance never led to a vote on whether he should be fired, but its refusal to allow public comments before adjourning to closed session angered the large audience on hand. The council later admitted to violating the Brown Act — the state’s open-meeting law — and pledged to change its meeting procedures going forward.

Meanwhile, in more of a feel-good story, Tori Hughes was chosen as Patterson’s first female police chief. Hughes was selected from among three candidates. She was sworn in Dec. 23 to replace Tyrone Spencer, who retired after nearly three decades of service in Patterson.

Fiesta fireworks

The annual Apricot Fiesta bounced back strong from significant challenges, with record crowds attending the June celebration.

Fiesta organizers were rocked by scandal late in 2008, when longtime volunteer Mike Estrella was arrested on suspicion of stealing $25,000 from the group he once worked for. Estrella pleaded no contest to his charges a week before the fiesta, and a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge sentenced him to 300 days in jail and three years probation.

The economy also threatened to put a damper on the fiesta, as organizers struggled with fundraising. But through the work of numerous volunteers and staff, the party went off mostly without a hitch.

At least one vendor had money stolen during the fiesta, and some parties got out of control at local bars, but that didn’t get organizers down. And the actual fireworks show — which was plagued in 2008 by malfunctions during the show and spectators being drenched when the sprinklers went off at the baseball field where they had gathered to watch — was as smooth as ever.

City and county projects

The Hammon Senior Center was the crown jewel of a productive year for city and county projects.

More than a decade in the works, the senior center finally opened in November near the intersection of Ward and West Las Palmas avenues, next door to the Patterson Aquatic Center.

The $4.5 million, 8,400-square-foot facility includes a 1,585-square-foot dining room, as well as a kitchen, exercise room, dedicated arts and crafts room, computer room and two lounges. It is used by seniors during the day on weekdays and is available to the community for rent on nights and weekends.

Patterson also partnered with the county and other nearby cities to build a new animal shelter near Ceres. The $8 million, 33,535-square-foot shelter — expected to open in December 2010 — should help the county handle its notoriously large number of unwanted animals, replacing the undersized, deteriorating, 37-year-old shelter near the airport in Modesto.

Meanwhile, city workers continued to replace water and sewer pipes in the older part of town. The job, one of the largest the city has ever undertaken, likely won’t be completed for a few years.

And one task even longer awaited than the senior center — adding a signal and realigning the intersection of Highway 33 and M Street — received state approvals and will likely begin construction in the summer.

West Park

The massive, controversial industrial project at the Crows Landing Air Facility wasn’t the headline-grabber in 2009 that it was a year or two ago, but the biggest news arrived early in the year.

In January, a Fresno County Superior Court judge dismissed the city of Patterson’s lawsuit against Stanislaus County and developer Gerry Kamilos. The lawsuit claimed the county committed to West Park in April 2008, when the county board of supervisors entered into a memorandum of understanding to choose a master developer for the site and create a project description before an environmental impact report was complete.

The City Council voted in April to appeal the case, and a ruling on the appeal is not expected until early 2010.

Meanwhile, the lengthy environmental review moved forward. Most notably, ground-penetrating radar was used in October to search for a possible pioneer cemetery located on the proposed West Park site. Results from the search were not released before the end of the year.

Weather

A day of low snow in Del Puerto Canyon in January was trumped by a day of snow within Patterson’s city limits in December. But a couple of brief encounters with the white stuff weren’t the only weather-related news in Patterson this year.

A massive October storm — bolstered by the remnants of a typhoon that struck Japan the week before — knocked down trees and power lines and caused flooding and treacherous road conditions. Locally, that meant winds of 20 mph and nearly 3 inches of rain.

The 24-hour total of 2.41 inches of rain was the highest in October and the third-highest overall in the nearly 100 years for which such records exist, according to local historian Claude Delphia.

It was the most rain in Patterson in a 24-hour period since Feb. 3, 1998, when 3.13 inches fell. At its peak, the storm dropped more than an inch of rain per hour.

Crime and tragedy

Fortunately, 2009 was without a stretch like the 30-day period in 2008, when 13 people died in accidents either in the Patterson-Westley area or that involved people from the area.

But there were tragedies. A 19-year-old Grayson man was shot and killed near the San Joaquin River. A Newman man was killed in a two-car accident on Interstate 5 near the Sperry Avenue exit. A 28-year-old man died in a single-car accident on Elm Avenue. And a 25-year-old Patterson woman died in a crash in Turlock just before Thanksgiving.

With those exceptions, though, 2009 was mostly a year of “It could have been worse.”

A house fire on Fig Avenue displaced a family, but none of the family members — nor their numerous animals — was injured. The Westley Community Center burned to the ground, but no one was hurt. A family of six was involved in a head-on, rollover crash on Christmas night, but all survived and none of the four young children was hurt.

An 18-year-old skateboarder was stabbed while trying to break up a fight, but his injuries were not life-threatening. Two crop duster crashes to the north yielded a total of one scraped knee. And an attack by a large dog at Patterson’s dog park caused serious injuries to a smaller dog and its owner, but all survived.

One family even received some unexpected closure in October, when the remains of Ben Brunsvik, a Crows Landing native who disappeared in 2006, were found in his car in the Delta-Mendota Canal.

Water, or lack thereof

The ongoing drought plaguing California farmers reached its breaking point early in 2009, when farmers who rely on groundwater let crops go fallow and the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that those who get water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the Central Valley Project would not receive any allocation at all.

The news got a little better late in the year, when the state Legislature passed a water package designed to build more water storage, improve flow and streamline regulation. In December, the federal government announced an action plan aimed at increasing its role in managing California’s water.

Opinions differed on what the government could do to solve the problem and whether the approaches taken at the state and federal levels were the right ones, but farmers could at least take some optimism from the fact it was treated as a legitimate priority.
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