The story that keeps on giving: First there was the secret vacation-time buyout plan, then the disclosure that the state Parks Department sat on a $54 million cash stash even as parks faced closure, and now comes word that the former key Parks official at the heart of the scandal was on court-ordered probation for years for a variety of offenses, including a felony.
From the Bee's Matt Weiser: "The former deputy director of state parks at the vortex of a financial scandal has a string of criminal convictions, including a felony DUI, and spent 12 of his 23 years in state government on court-ordered probation, according to court records."
"Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, is the former deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation who has admitted carrying out a vacation buyout program in 2011 that state officials have deemed unauthorized. Lopez himself benefited from the program, which cost more than $271,000."
"His former boss, parks director Ruth Coleman,accused Lopez of also playing a role in hiding $54 million in two special funds at the parks department."
It's called 'air time" and it's a popular option for government employees -- the ability to boost their pensions by buying up to five years of additional service credit. Another option is the "golden handshake," which allows benefits to be boosted upon retirement. Both practices are now coming under scrutiny.
From Calpensions' Ed Mendel: "If the Legislature attempts pension reform this month, one of the targets may be “air time,” a decade-old policy that allows CalPERS and CalSTRS members to boost their pensions by buying up to five years of additional service credit."
"Another older but also colorfully named policy, the “golden handshake,” allows management to encourage early retirement by boosting pensions with two years of additional service credit.
Some regard air time as an abuse, even though employees make a payment that is supposed to cover the cost. There is the question of fairness, a benefit not available to all citizens, and of taxpayer risk if long-term investment earnings are below the forecast."
"The golden handshake, with employers presumably paying the cost, has the same investment risk and often is offered only to higher-paid employees. The CalPERS version also gets competition from a private firm, Public Agency Retirement Services."
California's downtrodden timber industry appears to be in the first stages of a recovery, with receipts and jobs on the uptick.
From the Wall Street Journal's Justin Scheck: "The West Coast's beleaguered timber industry is making a comeback, boosting the economies of rural towns that remain otherwise hard hit by the economic downturn."
"Arnold, a town of close to 4,000 people, high in the Sierra Nevadas about 150 miles east of San Francisco, struggled for years from a logging slowdown. But last year, timber receipts in surrounding Calaveras County rose to $4.1 million, from $1.8 million in 2010, according to county data."
"The revival comes as California timber harvests and revenue rise for the third straight year, according to state data and timber companies."
A statewide ballot measure is being eyed for 2014 to finance improvements in California's public school buildings.
From the Cabinet Report's Kimberly Beltran: "State officials have set to work on an ambitious plan to upgrade California’s aging and outdated school facilities and, in doing so, lay the groundwork for a 2014 bond measure to help pay for it."
"The goal is to transform existing school structures into 21st Century learning environments – clean, safe and technologically-advanced with sustainable, cost-efficient energy systems – for the state’s six million students.The first step, officials said, is to create a comprehensive inventory on the status of the state’s classrooms to assess what actually needs to get done."
"“It’s vital that we have a plan,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said during a hearing on school facility needs last week. “I think it’s going to be a springboard for action in a way that the Legislature can move to a place in 2014 where we can go to the voters to say ‘let’s re-up; let’s invest again in a program that’s even more targeted toward the needs of our students.”
From the LAT's Lee Romney: "The new alarm system is set to roll out Tuesday in the area of the 400-acre campus where patients accused or convicted of crimes are held. The "tags" not only transmit constant signals on the location of each employee, but also receive data so that workers can reach one another in emergencies..."
"But there's one problem: Workers are being asked to wear the alarms on lanyards around their necks, creating what they contend is an ever-present risk of strangulation."
"Employees had helped to vet the alarms, which are activated when the wearer pulls on them with at least 5 pounds of force. The alarms hang on a lanyard with a breakaway device in the rear that gives way at 10 pounds of force — too high for the lanyard to fall apart before the alarm can be sounded but high enough to break away if an attacker were to pull on it."
And from our "European Oddities" file comes word of the machos in Bavaria who test their strength with -- what else? -- tugging at their fingers. Ja!
"The unusual competition is essentially a one-finger tug-of-war. Competitors, many of them sporting traditional Bavarian lederhosen, sit across from one another at a table, locking a single finger - usually the middle one - into a leather ring."
"The referee then blows the whistle and each man attempts to pull his opponent across the table. The winner is whoever manages to drag the other over the halfway mark twice."
"This year’s victor was the team from Ammergau."