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Lathrop hopefuls weigh in on levees, other issues
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With the Nov. 6 election less than three weeks away, The Bulletin submitted questions to every person running for a seat on the Lathrop City Council – save for Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal, who is running unopposed – to ask them about their position on a number of local issues. 

Here is the second half of the responses presented to incumbent Steve Dresser, and challenger Jennifer Torres-O’Callaghan, a current Lathrop Planning Commissioner – both of whom are running for the unexpired term stemming from the untimely and tragic death of Lathrop Councilman Ruben Salcedo shortly after taking the oath of office:

How important, to you, is the need to complete the 200 year flood plain improvements on the levee that protects Lathrop and its residents? With growth dependent on progress towards an eventual, and costly, overhaul what are your thoughts on SB5 and the role the city has played on a regional level in regard to it?

Dresser: “This should be one of the highest priorities for the city. The federal government will build the new VA hospital to 500 year flood protection levels but to now they have authorized assistance to improve the flood level protection levels in the cities in close proximity. If the current levees fail the county jail, county hospital, 40,000 plus people, schools, businesses could be cut off from all escape routes. Highways will be inaccessible rail will be disrupted. This is a challenge, for us, that absolutely needs to be resolved in our favor.  Who is going to build if they can’t be guaranteed that they can complete their projects or that storm water cannot be diverted appropriately. SB5 mandates must be met.  Growth occurs through additional housing which spurs small business, commercial and industrial expansion. All of which provides for head of household jobs, reduces travel time away from home and improves the quality of air.

The addition of Lathrop - Manteca to the San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency, SJAFCA, gives us a stronger voice in the county, the state and at the federal level. Prior to that our two cities were fighting an uphill battle. The county united will get the appropriate attention. Phase 1 of the Lower San Joaquin River Feasibility Study and preferred flood risk reduction plan is in the final stages of approval. Expediting Phase 2, which includes Lathrop and Manteca, was spelled out in the Phase 1 Feasibility report.”

Torres-O’Callaghan: “I believe that SB5 is one, if not the biggest and most expensive issue, facing the City of Lathrop. The City Staff has a dedicated team working on meeting the “adequate process” benchmarks including:  200 year flooding modeling and mapping, updating the general plan/zoning ordinances with the Planning Commission and City Council, preparing CIP and identifying costs, and developing design criteria. Having served on the Planning Commission for the past 4 plus years, I have seen our SB5 process progress from beginning to our present. 

As you may know, Lathrop has a history of levee breaks. The consequences of such a break with all the new residential development is a legitimate concern for residents, their families, and the schools in the zone. Of course, a 200 year flood with multiple levee failures would require a perfect storm but the fact remains that many residents, myself included, now live in a flood zone and could find their homes under 3 feet of water. Lathrop High could have water flowing throughout. Evacuations would be widespread in Lathrop, including our current police station. This is why SB5 is requiring upgrades of our aging levee system. 

It is important to note that River Islands has already implemented a 200 year levee in their construction. But, if Lathrop fails to meet the thresholds set forth in SB5, all development - industrial, residential, and commercial - will be forced to stop. This could have devastating consequences for our commercial development during our current boom. It would also stop residential developments cold. 

The next step is working on obtaining funding for the upgrades. Lathrop is currently working with Manteca, Stockton, as well as San Joaquin County in efforts to secure said funding. The City of Lathrop, and City Council Members, will be taking on a fundamental role in the region with respect to SB5. I can hit the ground running for Lathrop with respect to SB5. I have served the last 4 years plus on the Planning Commission and am up to speed. Moreover, I am comfortable with the legislative process having interned with the Office of Legislative Council in Sacramento.”

While the Lathrop Road widening project has always been a city priority, the completion of the project upset homeowners in the area and created a political firestorm. Do you think the project was justified to meet the needs of a growing community? Why or why not?

Dresser: Did not provide answer. 

Torres-O’Callaghan: “This is a very tough question. The City noted that the widening project was always part of the city plan and argues it was necessary as Lathrop continued to grow. The City felt that widening Lathrop Road to two lanes would improve safety. Their view was that safety would be improved because cars wouldn’t be racing for position on the single lane anymore and a median would provide an extra cushion. The City also felt that air quality would improve from better traffic flow and that the residents would benefit from a formal sidewalk. 

But, in actuality, the end result is that residents of Lathrop Road now have traffic traveling closer to their homes as the City built into the city’s right of way. There is even more traffic on Lathrop Road daily.  More trucks now use Lathrop Road than before. Residents can no longer safely back out of their own driveways and most have lost the ability to park on the street in front of their own homes. Lathrop residents who bought their homes with enjoyment in mind find their peace invaded by the sounds and vibrations of traffic outside their homes. 

I would have hoped a better compromise could have been made. In retrospect, was widening really necessary on the residential section of Lathrop Road? Was there enough room for this project? Was it really safer for the residents having traffic lanes closer to their homes? I am not convinced it was.”

With Lathrop’s role as an economic force in the South County changing as the city grows and attracts more businesses, how important is the city’s role as a regional player and how would you approach that subject?

Dresser: “Lathrop is where it all comes together. We have a huge area available for growth. Other cities have been growing over the years, but we are just taking off. We have an ideal location with the convergence of Interstate 5 and Highways 120 and 99.  Highway 205 and Interstate 580 connects us to the Bay Area. You can easily travel all points off the California compass from Lathrop. Want a commuter solution? ACE Rail has planned a station for Sharpe Depot that will provide a transfer point that commuters can use to go to the Bay Area or to Sacramento for work or enjoyment. The south county is growing and Lathrop is posed to be the leader.”

Torres-O’Callaghan: “Lathrop is growing. Commerce is coming and residential growth is booming. We are a “name” on the weather and traffic maps. And we are fast becoming a true regional player in attracting business and families to San Joaquin County.  Our role in South County is evolving too. We will be taking on a more active and vocal role in the region. For instance, we are taking a leading role in SB5 representing not only San Joaquin County but the region overall in a larger political context. Moreover, as our commerce continues to grow, we are poised to become a strong economic voice for our region. Lathrop is helping to attract more jobs to our region improving the life of our residents with a viable alternative to the so named “super commute”. 

At the same time, we must be careful to not overdevelop and turn our region into the next Bay Area. Lathrop must lead the way in valuing and respecting our farming roots, our waterways, our wildlife, our quality of life. Moreover, Lathrop must not forget that it is, at its heart, a family centered community. We must continue to honor our small town feel and protect what makes Lathrop special and stands us apart from our neighboring cities - the very reason so many of us choose to live in Lathrop and raise our families here. The challenge will be to recruit, encourage, and grow business development and job opportunities for families in the region while, at the same time, remaining true to our valley identity and quality of life. “

How would you rate the progress of the current city council and recent councils in regard to ushering the community into a new era? What do you think they did well, and what would you change?

Dresser: “The first thing to address is the financial standing of the city. We have roared back from the economic down turn of 2007 and 2008.  There is a $5 million dollar reserve. Where once we had block after block of vacated homes we have new neighbors and neighborhoods. All generating revenue for the city which has allowed it to make improvements and maintain high levels of police and fire fighters. We have steadily added businesses such as Tesla, UPS and Ashley Home Furniture. We are working closely with the San Joaquin Business Partnership to secure new business. Our relationship with the San Joaquin Economic Development Agency and the Lathrop Chamber of Commerce will help us maintain and attract additional businesses. Getting a new developer, Saybrook, to breathe new life into a stalled Central Lathrop which is now ready to explode. Approvals are nearing or in place for South Lathrop and Gateway areas and River Islands is building as fast as tracts can be approved. Commercial business is starting to take an interest in Lathrop.  Is the council making progress? You bet they are!”

Torres-O’Callaghan: “Our current City Council has been working hard. Lathrop is enjoying a huge housing boom, big businesses are coming to Lathrop, and our city has a healthy rainy day fund. But there is much work still to be done and changes to be made. 

We need to look at fees and fines in our City. We need to reevaluate our water and sewer fees. These are hurting our families and fixed income residents. Fees should not outweigh the costs of water usage. Period. Council approved these fee increases for the upgrades. I believe that the cost should be spread among developers. Developers need to be part of our water and sewer solution. Rather than placing the costs directly on our families, we can negotiate spreading the cost for our water upgrade amongst developers. I believe this would be a better solution, especially for our senior fixed income residents. We also need a more transparent water billing system. Citizens should never be surprised with a jump in charges 

We need to look into city code regulations and enforcement. Why did the City approve fines for boats and RVs that are parked rightfully on a property owner’s driveway? Our citizens work hard for their homes and their vehicles... and should not have to pay to store them somewhere else. Do we not live in a Delta community? Residents have also reported being fined for having basketball hoops on the street for their children to play. Again, this is classic over-regulating and needs to be checked. 

Responsible growth needs to become a priority. We need to ensure that as housing tracts grow that we have schools ready for our students. Students should not be bussed and forced to commute because schools are impacted. This creates a longer day for the children and stress on their families. Developers, MUSD, Banta, and city staff need to understand that we need schools as part of the deal. Not someday, in the future, but as they build. We also need to make sure growth in retail/business services matches pace with Lathrop’s residential development. We need more grocery options, sit down restaurants, and stores and banks to service our residents. We need to promote and market Lathrop and actively recruit retail opportunities. 

Finally, I believe it is time for the city to look into what services we offer our citizens. First, we need to work with MUSD to offer bussing again. We, at a minimum, should be able to firmly negotiate for school bus routes that families have the option to pay for. MUSD has busses just sitting in the yard… surely, we could find a monthly per student charge that would pay for a p/t am and pm driver per school. This would be safer for students than walking alone, lessen congestion at the carpool, reduce parent stress, and improve air quality around the schools.  Likewise, it would be great to designate some Measure C funds to provide a shuttle service for our seniors. Having a shuttle to events in the city such as the Lathrop Cityhood Celebration, City Council Meetings, etc. These are just a few changes that I would like to see implemented.”

What do you feel the city’s biggest strength is? Its biggest weakness? How do you plan on addressing both of those if elected to represent the citizens of Lathrop?

Dresser: “One of Lathrop’s greatest strengths is our ability to respond quickly to new commercial business and to housing development. Our inability to address perceived inequality amongst East Lathrop, West Lathrop, and River Islands could be viewed as a weakness. We have not done a good job of bridging the areas together. The council has to be open to new ideas, valuing input, and balancing wants and needs. Citizens need to participate at planning sessions and council meetings to be heard and discuss ideas. Council members need to be active in the community by getting involved in service clubs, school organizations, church groups and neighborhood watch groups. We need to be available to the public. That is my commitment. That has been my track record.”

Torres-O’Callaghan: “I think Lathrop’s biggest weakness currently centers around our City’s water system.  Firstly, we need to look at fees for water/sewer in our City. Fees should not outweigh the costs of water usage. Ever. Period. These fees are hurting our families. Council approved these fee increases for the system upgrades to address arsenic levels and for system maintenance and operation in May of 2011. The water budget had a shortfall due to less water use by residents in response to the drought and conservation efforts. Families were told to conserve and water on certain days or risk fines. But on the other hand, when doing so, they were plagued by fees to cover the City’s water budget shortfall. This just is not fair. There needs to be a better way. Developers need to be part of our water system solution. Rather than placing the costs solely on our families, we can work on spreading the cost for our water system upgrade. I believe this would be a better solution, especially for our senior residents on a fixed income. 

In addition, we need transparency. Firstly, we need a clearer water billing system. Our citizens should never be surprised with a jump in charges. Late charge pink notices are being sent in error. How can the water billing system be more efficient? Moreover, citizens need to know:    How long are the current fee increases for? When will they go back down, if at all? Why did Lathrop miss a water testing period? Who is in charge of the testing calendar for water quality? How will this mistake be avoided in the future? Are the processes used in cleaning and purifying our water safe? Can citizens be warned ahead of time about power flushes in the system which might affect our water? If elected, these are the just some of the issues I would push for transparency on.

Now for the easy part of the question. Lathrop’s biggest strength is hands down its citizens. Lathrop neighbors look out for one another. Time and again, Lathrop residents go out of their way to help. A phone or wallet found in a parking lot, Lathropians turn it in. Not so in other cities. In Lathrop, lost or abandoned dogs are quickly sheltered and fed while their images are posted online to find their owners. If there is unusual or suspicious activity, rest assured, Lathropians post it on our neighborhood watch boards to let their neighbors quickly know to keep an eye out. I’ve seen firsthand neighbors stepping up and create meal trains for families facing unexpected illness. Residents pack care packages for troops and organize holiday card drives for our service men and women overseas. Residents came together to develop an annual first responders bbq to honor and thank our hometown heroes. Our kids give back too. Students run canned food drives for the needy during the holidays. They collect coats for students in need. They make cards for troops overseas and to thank our hometown officers. They arrange care baskets for foster kids. This is what makes Lathrop so very special. This is why I am so very thankful to be raising my family in Lathrop. If elected, I would like to implement a Citizen Recognition Program at City Council meetings to honor the good deeds (big and small) done in our community.”