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More San Francisco women choosing home birth despite the higher cost

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
January 29, 2012

Rita Kearns lies back as her midwife measures her gravid belly. Maria Iorillo presses a fetoscope to Kearns’ side and finds the baby’s heartbeat. “It’s perfect,” she says, passing Kearns the earpieces.

Kearns, 43, is 41 weeks pregnant — one week past her due date. By now, many obstetricians would suggest inducing labor. Iorillo is content to wait. And, when the contractions begin, Kearns will give birth at home, as she’s done twice before.

She is one of a growing number of area women choosing to give birth at home. Local home births have doubled since 2005, even as overall births declined nearly 7 percent from 2007, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Many families choose home birth even though insurance companies frequently leave them holding the bag for some or all of the costs.

Families choose home birth for a variety of reasons, said midwife Michelle Welborn. Some fear hospitals and medical intervention. Others want a natural birth, or control of the birthing environment, Welborn said.

At hospitals, women often face doctors eager to accelerate labor, said Redwood City doula Sandra Caldwell. That can lead to complications, even Caesarean sections.

Others turn away from hospitals because they don’t appreciate rushed prenatal visits attended by a revolving-door cast of nurses and doctors. Gia Schultz, 30, was 22 and 30 weeks pregnant when she hired a midwife to deliver her son at home.

“Instantly knew I wanted her at my birth,” Schultz said. “She had an actual interest in getting to know us … our wants, needs and unique characteristics. In the hospital you didn’t have enough time for that.”

San Francisco’s midwives and home-birth supporters have worked hard to make The City a home-birth mecca.

They network through the Bay Area Homebirth Collective, offer birth classes and potlucks, and have fought to legalize home birth and encourage hospitals to embrace it.

When Iorillo came to San Francisco in 1985, it was illegal for her to deliver babies at home, despite her license from a renowned midwifery school. She served on the California Board of Midwives for 10 years, during which she saw two bills legalizing non-nurse midwives fail before the third passed in 1994.

Local midwives worked with UC San Francisco’s birth center to overcome the hostility many women faced when they told their obstetricians they were planning a home birth — hostility that often returned if they wound up transferring to a hospital during labor.

“We had doctors who think home birth isn’t safe, and I think the majority of doctors feel that way,” said Judith Bishop, a former home-birth midwife who now delivers babies at UCSF. “We wanted to make sure there isn’t a divisive feeling between hospital and home birth, that people don’t feel they’re treated badly for coming in, or that we treat them with less respect.”

When that happens, she added, women and midwives become reluctant to transfer, risking the health of both mother and child.

Now, the only San Francisco hospital where doctors may decline to accept home-birth transfers is the California Pacific Medical Center.

Spokesman Kevin McCormack said CPMC isn’t opposed to home births, but its obstetricians, who are independent practitioners, can choose not to back up patients planning home births. CPMC delivers nearly half the babies born here each year, and has a 29 percent C-section rate, just slightly lower than the state average of 32.8 percent.

California hospitals charge upward of $15,000 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth, and often $30,000 or more for a C-section. While health-insurance providers cover most or all of those costs, they routinely reimburse 50 percent or less for home birth, which costs just $4,000 to $6,000 — including all prenatal and postnatal care.

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it,” Bishop said. “It would be so much cheaper for insurance companies not to pay the hospital bill, which is gigantic.”

Coverage for home birth varies depending on the insurance provider and the patient’s plan, noted Schultz, who now handles insurance billing for Rites of Passage Midwifery. Kaiser doesn’t cover anything. Others may pay anywhere from 20 to 50 percent — even 100 percent, if the stars align.

“The key is patience,” Schultz said. “Insurance companies always come back and say they won’t pay you; you have to go through the process of denial over and over.”

Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a collective of 1,300 insurers, said the coverage issues relate to patient safety. “The bottom line,” she said, “is the evidence has been pretty sparse on the safety of home births.”

But according to a 2005 British Medical Journal study of 5,000 American births, home birth has similarly low rates of infant and maternal mortality as low-risk hospital births. Other studies have echoed these findings.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is beginning to soften. In October, it met with midwives for the first Home Birth Summit in Virginia. “Instead of all the backstabbing and trying to squelch us out of existence, they had an open conversation about where we can find consensus,” Iorillo said.

Natural-birth centers forced to close doors

Home births are increasingly popular, but the sagging economy has hit natural-birth advocates hard, leaving pregnant parents with fewer choices.

St. Luke’s Hospital closed its “Homestyle” program — which offered in-house midwives and a more natural birthing model — in 2007 to help keep the financially strapped hospital from closing. Earlier this year, Sage Femme, The City’s only independent birthing center, shuttered its Capp Street facility after reimbursements from Medi-Cal and other insurance providers shrank.

Natural Resources, the 24-year-old shop that provides classes, birth-tub rentals and supplies for natural-birth families, narrowly escaped the same fate in November when it raised $48,000 through crowd-sourcing.

“It started with the economy,” said Natural Resources owner Cara Vidano. “Over time, our revenue has decreased.

Even with cutting costs, we haven’t been able to pay all our bills.” After failing to find a buyer for the struggling store, Vidano faced two choices: raise donations or close.

Sage Femme and its head midwife, Judy Tinkelenberg, delivered hundreds of babies in their 12 years in the Mission district. Tinkelenberg was the only midwife in San Francisco to accept Medi-Cal. The average client paid $3,820 to $4,500 for a birth at Sage Femme, including all prenatal and post-natal care. Until recently, Medi-Cal would cover almost $2,000 of that, but in recent years, their reimbursement dropped to less than $1,200 per birth.

“And, if the patient transfers to a hospital” — which 5 to 40 percent of home-birth moms do, depending on the midwife — “I don’t get paid at all,” Tinkelenberg said. “If I had cut Medi-Cal I don’t know if it would have been made up for with paying patients.”

For both businesses, the community — not the health care industry — is what may keep birth options alive.

Tinkelenberg is now attending home births and working with the Alameda-based Birth Options Foundation to raise money for a new birth center somewhere in the Bay Area.

For Natural Resources, the influx of donations “means we will be able to function again,” Vidano said. “If everything goes as planned, we will be in business for a while. This isn’t just a short-term solution.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2012 at 9:46 PM

San Mateo County’s new manager takes the reins

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Beth Winegarner
San Francisco Examiner
December 4, 2008

REDWOOD CITY — The San Mateo County manager seat isn’t relinquished lightly: It has only changed occupants four times in the last 50 years.

Meet No. 5: David Boesch, 51, who has served nearly two years at the side of retiring County Manager John Maltbie. On Jan. 1, Boesch will officially step into the top job, and by all accounts he has big shoes to fill.

Like Maltbie, who took the post in 1989, Boesch comes on just as the county is at the brink of recession. San Mateo County faces a $28.6 million deficit this year, which could balloon to $92 million by 2013, according to the county budget manager, if leaders don’t take quick action.

Meanwhile, plans to build a new jail facility to relieve overcrowding at Maguire Correctional Facility — the county’s men’s jail — along with the falling-apart women’s jail, will cost the county between $130 million and $150 million. Additionally, a total overhaul of the health care system, aimed at serving patients better while cutting subsidies by $20 million, is already under way and due for completion in March 2010.

Boesch said he also hopes to reduce the county’s contributions to climate change and pollution — all while developing long-range plans that will carry the region through the year 2025.

“The Board of Supervisors has the sense that [Boesch] can rise to the challenge,” Supervisor Rich Gordon said. “And certainly we intend to give him the opportunity — this is a very difficult time to be a county manager.”

And with already full hands, Boesch comes in at a time when several longtime county leaders — including interim health system Director Charlene Silva and 10-year Supervisor Jerry Hill — are on their way out.

“It’s a lot rockier now [than when Maltbie was in office],” said Adrienne Tissier, president of the county Board of Supervisors. “A lot of institutional memory is walking out the door.”

That said, the new chief has a long history in public service.

Boesch grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning in 1979 from the University of Utah. After working as a Utah planner, he got his master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.

In 1996, Boesch became community development director in Sunnyvale before taking the city manager’s reins in 2000 in Menlo Park.

During his time in Menlo Park, Boesch developed a reputation for fiscal responsibility and a broad view — one that understands San Mateo County’s place in the bigger picture of finances, transportation and legislation regionally and statewide, according to Rich Napier, director of the City/County Association of Governments.

Boesch said he’s ready to get to work — and work with others — to tackle San Mateo’s needs.

“I have a conference table in my office that’s used almost constantly,” Boesch said. “My style is very collegial and inclusive, and I recognize that many of the issues … are complex.”

David Boesch
Age: 51
Family: Married, one child
Residence: Menlo Park
Years in public service: 22
Years as assistant San Mateo County manager: Nearly two
First day as San Mateo County manager: Jan. 1

Deficit widening as new manager steps in

Retiring County Manager John Maltbie socked away $200 million for a rainy day in San Mateo County. Now, storm clouds are starting to form.

The county faces a $28.6 million deficit this year — which could balloon to $92 million by 2013 if the government stays its course, according to Jim Saco, who manages the county’s budget department. The county’s total budget is $1.7 billion.

When incoming County Manager David Boesch takes over in January, one of his first orders of business will be to determine the region’s fiscal direction.

“We’re not going to solve the problem in a single year,” Boesch said. “The [Board of Supervisors has] embraced a five-year strategy, and we want to be very deliberate about how we go about bringing the budget into balance.”

The fiscal gap arises from a number of sources at once, including statewide funding cuts and losses among local tax revenue, including income the county makes on property sales. It didn’t help that San Mateo County had $155 million invested with Lehman Brothers Inc. before its collapse, Saco said.

Cuts from state-level funding would likely reduce public services — including health and elderly care — normally bankrolled by those funds. Boesch said he’ll take a sharp look at which county-funded services could be streamlined or even consolidated to save money.

What exactly does a county manager do?

A county manager is appointed to manage the day-to-day operations of government, along with implementing legislation adopted by elected bodies.

San Mateo’s county manager is responsible for overseeing:

5,278 county employees (currently)
18 county departments
$1.7 billion county budget
733,496 county residents
Source: San Mateo County

Health system revamp suddenly in new hands

The cost of health care is rising three times as fast as inflation, costing San Mateo County a pretty penny when it comes to caring for uninsured and underinsured residents.

To address both the financial stability of the system along with the health needs of residents, an effort to completely revamp the health department was launched in March, led by retiring County Manager John Maltbie.

During the next two years, all government-provided health services — from the public hospital to health inspections — will come under one umbrella, according to incoming County Manager David Boesch, who steps in Jan. 1.

Roughly 60,000 clients — most of them county residents — receive services through hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and other providers, according to Srija Srinivasan, special assistant to the county manager.

Once the consolidation is complete, health services will be the county’s single biggest department, with 2,100 employees and a budget of nearly $500 million, according to Srinivasan.

“There are a lot of people in the county, wealthy as it is, who have inadequate coverage and don’t get treatment until they’re very sick,” Boesch said. “They come to our emergency rooms, but we think we can do better in terms of preventing chronic disease.”

By streamlining health care systems, leaders also hope to shave off $20 million in health subsidies, according to Boesch.

After 20 years, Maltbie leaves behind a mighty legacy

If the rule is, “Leave things better than you found them,” retiring San Mateo County Manager John Maltbie has followed it well.

When Maltbie took office as the county’s top administrator in March 1989, the region was sliding into a recession. By June of that year he had delivered his first budget to the Board of Supervisors. When he officially retires Dec. 30, he will leave the county $200 million richer.

Maltbie got there by bucking the conventional wisdom about how to operate government.

“There’s a tendency on the part of elected officials to provide more services because nobody likes to say no to constituents,” said Supervisor Jerry Hill, recently elected to the California Assembly after 10 years representing San Mateo County. “But he would paint the picture of what the future would look like and convince us. He’s kept us afloat.”

In addition to bringing a hefty fiscal cushion to San Mateo County, Maltbie helped the region’s 20 small cities and towns rally collectively at the state level, partly through the creation of joint agencies such as the City/County Association of Governments, according to Director Rich Napier.

“When we went after resources, we were speaking with one voice,” said Napier.

For example, that voice allowed the county to secure $60 million in state infrastructure bond money to pay for a countywide auxiliary lane currently under construction on Highway 101.

When asked what he’s most proud of, Maltbie talks about the creation of universal health care for the county’s uninsured children, boosting nonprofit services in schools, along with using the Children’s Report Card to measure whether kids are getting what they need.

Maltbie said he’s loved his life of public service.

“I enjoyed the challenges and the opportunity to be engaged in work where I could see the immediate impact on people’s lives,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 4, 2008 at 11:11 PM

Posted in San Mateo County

Who’s afraid of the big bad cat?

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 30, 2008

Nancy Mangini still vividly remembers the first time she saw a mountain lion in Woodside, while delivering a prescription from her husband’s pharmacy.

“I parked in the driveway, and it just came loping down next to the car,” Mangini said.

The second time — about four years ago — she was walking at dusk in Edgewood Park and looked out across the valleys, only to find she wasn’t alone.

“I could see a very large feline walking along the ridge, and I thought, ‘This is probably not a good place for me to be,’” Mangini said.

In both instances, the sight was “rather thrilling — it reminds you that you are indeed in the natural world.”

Whether they’re thrilled, frightened or just curious, 13 separate mountain lions have reportedly been sighted since late August by residents of San Mateo County. While only one of those sightings — a cougar hit and injured Oct. 14 by a sport utility vehicle on Highway 92 — has been confirmed by officials, experts say there’s no doubt that residents are more aware of big cats than ever.

Most of the reports have come from places where open-space parks and hillside residences meet: Woodside, Portola Valley and San Bruno Mountain. Opinions vary regarding whether sightings have increased, as well as the reasons why residents feel they’re seeing more mountain lions.

“We’re not tracking it, but anecdotally, we think the reports are increasing,” said Ken White, director of the Peninsula Humane Society.

That may be due in part to increased awareness and media attention, according to Kyle Orr, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game. The mountain lion population in California is holding steady at 4,000 to 6,000, and the population of their primary prey — deer — has also been stagnant, Orr said.

And although development in rural parts of the county — particularly along Skyline Boulevard — has been static for years, near San Bruno Mountain there are new housing projects planned, boosting the opportunity for residents and lions to spy one another, according to Lisa Grote, director of planning for the county.

Aside from living closer to the animals, some residents are making changes that are bringing the wildlife closer to them.

“Mountain lions were unheard of five years ago,” said Perry Vartanian, treasurer of the Woodside Hills Homes Association. “What’s going on is, we didn’t used to have deer here — there was no vegetation.”

Now, brush is thicker and more residents are putting in gardens, giving the deer plenty to nibble on — and drawing cougars closer to houses.

At the same time, better awareness about health and exercise — coupled with tight budgets that keep residents closer to home — means more Peninsula residents are hiking in local open-space parks, according to Dave Holland, director of the San Mateo County Parks Department.

However, Holland said as locals take to the outdoors and spot the occasional wild big cat, their fears will decrease, not increase.

“More connection with nature will ease that concern, because you’re more familiar and you have more information on how to be prepared for an outdoor environment,” Holland said.

Indeed, there is little sign that locals are feeling threatened by the lions in their neighborhoods.

Although California residents can obtain permits — called depradation permits — in order to kill a mountain lion they believe is threatening public safety, their pets or livestock, only four such permits have been issued in the county since 1972, and no felines have been killed as a result, Orr said.

Eric Sakuma, a deputy with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office who responds to many reported sightings, said he sees signs that locals are becoming less afraid of their predatory neighbors.

“Two years ago, the calls were, ‘Get the lion, I want it out of here,’” Sakuma said. “I think residents now are more concerned about documenting that it’s in the neighborhood so alerts can go out.”

Don’t tell a mountain lion tale unless you see a tail, expert says

The first thing mountain lion experts want the public to know is that if you think you’ve seen a big cat, chances are you haven’t.

There are plenty of the big cats throughout the state, including in San Mateo County — somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000, according to state Department of Fish and Game estimates. However, most of the animals reported as mountain lions are actually other animals.

“Most commonly they’re dogs, or sometimes even a large house cat,” said Doug Updike, statewide mountain lion coordinator for Fish and Game. “When it’s dark or dim, people don’t get a real good look.”

Cases of mistaken identity are common enough that when San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy Eric Sakuma responds to a mountain lion sighting, the first thing he asks the reporting party is whether the animal had a tail.

“And they’ll say, ‘No, it didn’t have a tail,’” Sakuma said, confirming that many times locals are seeing bobcats, not cougars. “It’s one and the same to a lot of people.”

Adult mountain lions are a single, tawny color from head to tail, except for a black-tipped tail and a black “mustache” on their face, according to Updike. Females weigh 75 to 90 pounds, while males weigh 120 to 160 pounds. Their tails are half the length of their bodies.

Their favorite times to prowl are dawn, dusk and night, particularly by the light of the moon, according to Updike. They roam through large areas up to 200 square miles, mostly so their prey forget they’re around.

And, because they’re well camouflaged and shy, it’s not easy to spot them.

“Lions see us all the time,” Updike said. “And, typically, we look right at them and never see them.”

That’s why the second thing big-cat experts want locals to know is: They don’t like eating humans.

Since 1890, only 14 Californians have been attacked by mountain lions, according to Fish and Game spokesman Kyle Orr. Six were fatal.

“Mountain lions tend to attack from behind, so it’s a good thing we’re not on their menu,” Updike said. “If we were tasty, hundreds of people would be killed each weekend. They don’t like us, and that’s a good thing.”

Cougar sightings in San Mateo County

Since late August, 13 separate reports have been made by Peninsula residents who said they spotted a big cat.

Aug. 21: Resident reports seeing two mountain lions entering the west side of Edgewood Park in Redwood City.

Aug. 31: Portola Valley resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 200 block of West Floresta Way.

Sept. 9: Woodside resident reports seeing a mountain lion at 5 Vintage Court.

Sept. 15: Woodside resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 400 block of Old La Honda Road.

Sept. 30: Resident reports seeing two mountain lions walking along a trail on San Bruno Mountain; jogger reports seeing a mountain lion crouching in the brush on San Bruno Mountain.

Oct. 3: Resident reports seeing a mountain lion on the Bear Gulch Trail in Wunderlich Park in Woodside.

Oct. 8: San Mateo resident reports seeing a mountain lion in the 200 block of West Poplar Avenue; San Mateo resident reports seeing a mountain lion near Occidental Avenue and Clark Drive.

Oct. 14: Driver reports seeing a mountain lion limping away after being hit by a vehicle on Highway 92 west of Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir.

Oct. 18: A Portola Valley resident reports finding a devoured deer carcass in the front yard of a home on Naranja Way, and suspects a mountain lion left it there.

Tips for living among big cats

Coexisting with California’s biggest cats is quite simple. If you’re living in mountain lion country:

Don’t feed deer. It’s illegal in California and it will attract mountain lions.
Deer-proof your landscaping by avoiding plants they like
to eat.
Trim brush to reduce hiding places for mountain lions.
Don’t leave small children or pets outside unattended.
Install motion-sensitive lighting around the house.
Provide sturdy, covered shelters for sheep, goats and other vulnerable animals.
Don’t allow pets outside when mountain lions are most active: dawn, dusk and at night.
Bring pet food inside to avoid attracting raccoons, opossums and other potential mountain lion prey.
Do not hike, bike or jog alone.
Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active: dawn, dusk and at night.
Do not approach a mountain lion.
If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects; pick up small children.
If attacked, fight back.
If a mountain lion attacks a person, call 911
Source: California Department of Fish and Game

Mountain lions in California: Facts and figures

4,000 to 6,000
Mountain lion population statewide

Possible sightings in San Mateo County since late August

Confirmed sighting

Mountain lion attacks in California since 1890

Fatal attacks

Sources: California Department of Fish and Game, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 30, 2008 at 11:28 PM

The Peninsula fights a big battle against a little moth

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
August 7, 2008

For farmers throughout San Mateo County, the much-ballyhooed light brown apple moth is living up to its reputation as a pest — though not in the usual way.

Much has been made of the pint-size insect, primarily because major citizen protests erupted after hundreds of residents in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties reported health problems after state and federal agriculture officials conducted an aerial spraying program last fall to keep the moths from mating.

In June, officials announced that they would shelve a plan for additional spraying in California. Instead, state officials will try to control the invasive pest with a program that releases sterile moths in an attempt to interrupt mating patterns.

The light brown apple moth is considered a potential threat to California’s estimated $32 billion agriculture industry because it eats so many different kinds of crops and plants, officials with the California Department of Food and Agriculture said.

So far, the moth — which immigrated to California from Australia, New Zealand or Hawaii in 2007 — has not caused any crop damage, according to CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle. Traps in San Mateo County have caught 359 moths, compared with nearly 8,500 in neighboring San Francisco and nearly 18,000 in Santa Cruz County.

However, for the 88 growers and other plant-based businesses within San Mateo County’s moth-quarantine zone — which was expanded in June and now covers nearly half of the county — the winged herbivore has led to waves of frequent inspections, pesticide sprays and other regulatory hassles, farmers say.

“I can’t always afford to spray [for pests], but I can’t afford to throw flowers away if they find a moth, so it’s a dilemma,” said Pete Vanos at Westland Nursery in Pescadero, which grows and sells cut flowers from freesia and lilies to rarer breeds.

County agricultural inspectors found a moth in Vanos’ greenhouse this year, but he was able to prove the pest was gone and his crop was clear within a few days — before he suffered significant losses.

David Repetto, who runs Repetto’s, a cut-flower market in Half Moon Bay, saw one of his greenhouses shut down for two weeks after inspectors found a suspected moth.

The pest in question turned out to be something else. Nonetheless, Repetto spent hundreds of dollars on pesticides — which he doesn’t normally use, since he sells flowers to Whole Foods — before his crop was given a clean bill of health.

Other farms, so far, have been lucky.

“Right now, the only impact on us is that I’ve got traps over every square inch of the ranch,” said Ed Riley, who runs Giusti Farms in Half Moon Bay. The farm grows plenty of produce that moths like to nibble, from Brussels sprouts to fava beans, but the sprays Riley uses to prevent other pests already work on the apple moth.

“It just means headaches and extra work for me to get the trucks out earlier in the day, because the inspectors go home by 3:30,” Riley said.

Keeping up with inspections has also taxed the staff at San Mateo County’s Department of Agriculture and Weights & Measures, whose inspectors have to check all 88 companies every 30 days — or every 14 days in some cases, commissioner Gail Raabe said.

Because there’s so much work to do, their staff is supplemented by inspectors from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the latter of which reimburses them about $60,000 per year for mileage and other inspection-related costs, Raabe said.

Although prevention efforts may seem like more of a pest than the moth itself, they remain crucial to preventing future crop damage, Lyle said.

“There’s no question that a quarantine presents a hardship,” Lyle said. “But the way we operate, you react to the threat before it causes damage. If you wait until there’s damage, you’ve likely waited too long.”

How did the moths get here?
Human travelers aren’t the only ones who make their way to the Bay Area via San Francisco International Airport — thousands of insects and other pests are nabbed at security every year, and some agricultural experts think the light brown apple moth may have immigrated that way.

“The only place in North America that has the moth is the Bay Area,” said San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner Gail Raabe, of the pest formerly only known in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Although county inspectors have not found any moths on commercial plant shipments coming into the Peninsula, “the assumption is it came in on nursery stock from those countries,” Raabe said.

No one can say for sure how the plant-eating moth arrived in sunny California, said Roxanne Hercules, spokeswoman for federal agricultural inspections at SFO and other airports.

Most commercial growers are cooperative and responsible when it comes to shipping products into the region, Raabe said.

However, products and pests can slip through.

“The data for San Francisco baggage indicates that 7 percent of passengers are likely to be carrying prohibited [plant or produce] items,” Hercules said.

Among commercial shipments — as opposed to plants or produce passengers might have picked up on vacation — federal inspectors confiscated 3,911 forbidden plant products in June 2008, Hercules said.

County biologists, who also check commercial shipments at the airport, looked at 18,239 shipments between July 2006 and June 2007, rejected 5 percent of those shipments for being infested or not having proper paperwork, and confiscated 1,163 pests, from small plant-destroying insects called scale to a trio of enormous African snails, Raabe said.

By the numbers
359: Light brown apple moths found in San Mateo County

186: Locations in which moths were found

88: Companies within the quarantine zone, including nurseries, growers and green-waste haulers

$168 million: Gross production value of farming in San Mateo County, 2006

$60,000: Amount San Mateo County’s Department of Agriculture is reimbursed by the USDA for inspection-related expenses, per year

Source: San Mateo County Dept. of Agriculture, Weights and Measures; California Department of Agriculture

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 7, 2008 at 5:31 AM

Posted in San Mateo County

High school dropouts up

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
July 17, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — High school students in San Francisco and San Mateo counties are dropping out at much higher rates than educators previously thought, according to new data released by the California Department of Education on Wednesday.

San Francisco’s historic dropout rate, which has fluctuated between 1 percent and 2 percent per year in the previous decade, is closer to 5.2 percent per year — 21.2 percent for a four-year period, compared with 24.2 percent statewide, according to the CDE.

On the Peninsula, where one-year dropout rates ranged from 1.3 percent to 2.2 percent this decade, the one-year rate for 2006-07 was 4 percent, and 15.6 percent for a four-year period.

The new dropout numbers were calculated with a different method than previously used by the state: For the first time, data were gathered by tracking every individual student in the state, CDE officials said.

Ethnic minorities — particularly Hispanics, blacks, Pacific Islanders and American Indians — were much more likely to drop out, according to the newly released calculations. In San Francisco, 33.4 percent of Hispanics dropped out of high school during a four-year period, and San Mateo County lost 24.4 percent of its Hispanic students.

“This is a huge problem — and very important for the future of California, because they’re our largest-expanding ethnic group,” said Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, a group that believes dropout rates are still being underreported.

Educators, both Bay Area and statewide, took the new rates as a wake-up call.

“Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news,” said Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. “This is data-rich information that will be a powerful tool to better target resources, assistance and interventions to keep students in school and on track.”

The new information can help schools determine where interventions are most needed and, as dropout rates are updated each year, better understand which ones are working, said Cheryl Hightower, associate superintendent for instructional services at the San Mateo County Office of Education.

Schools also must work harder to boost students’ academic achievement, so they don’t become so discouraged that they leave, according to San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

“We need kids to be in school so we can serve them,” Garcia said. “And we need to serve them well when they are there.”

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 17, 2008 at 5:23 AM

Officials: Design flaw enabled inmate escape

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
February 20, 2008

A design oversight at the county Youth Services Center, from which 17-year-old murder suspect Josue Orozco escaped last week, allowed the young fugitive to flee the San Mateo facility, authorities revealed Tuesday.

Orozco scaled a 15-foot wall near a basketball court at the facility after two inmates boosted him high enough to reach halogen lights installed only 12 feet up the wall, according to officials. He used the lights as grappling mounts to climb over, then slipped through a hole in a fence and made his getaway.

The escape has highlighted a few security and protocol issues since Orozco fled sometime between 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Thursday.

The youngest person charged with murder in San Mateo County, Orozco was only 14 when he was charged with the murder of Francisco “Pancho” Rodriguez, of Redwood City, in 2005. Orozco faces life without parole.

In addition to the placement of the lights, authorities were not alerted until after close to three hours after the escape.

“Orozco has had ample time to plan his escape,” said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Mark Alcantara.

The halogen lights have now been raised to 15 feet and the recreation yard where the inmates were playing basketball has been closed, Probation Department Supervisor Loren Buddress said Tuesday.

The Youth Services Center, at 222 Paul Scannell Drive, is considering a number of long-term changes, Buddress said, such as the setup of an emergency notification phone service that will notify neighbors in the event of another escape.

Authorities also plan to revamp the process of notifying state law enforcement agencies and securing arrest warrants, Buddress said.

The probation department, which is responsible for the Youth Services Department, aims to finish its investigation this week and recommend any security upgrades, Buddress said.

The probation department continues to review surveillance tapes, which show two inmates, Martin Villa Patino and Vanher Cho, both 18, boosting Orozco high enough to grab onto the lights, Buddress said.

Authorities do not know who might have cut the hole in the fence, Alcantara said. The tapes also show a midsize black sedan with chrome wheels pulling to the fence around 7 p.m., he said.

Authorities are “not positive that the car was part of the escape,” but can’t discount that it might have been involved, he said.

A manhunt is currently under way, with county sheriff’s deputies, FBI, state law enforcement and border patrol working together to find Orozco.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors expects to hold its own separate investigation into the incident next Tuesday, said Bill Chiang, aide to Supervisor Adrienne Tissier.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 20, 2008 at 9:50 PM

Faultline samples could hold clues

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 4, 2007

Core samples from inside the San Andreas fault may provide scientists with their first clues regarding how earthquakes begin, why they happen when they do and why some are so much stronger than others.

Those samples, drilled just weeks ago from a test site near Paso Robles, were unveiled by Stanford University and U.S. Geological Survey scientists Thursday. The group also announced plans to establish an observatory two miles underground, deep within California’s biggest fault, to measure and study earthquakes as they happen.

“For the first time, scientists can hold a piece of the San Andreas fault in their hands,” said Mark Zoback, a geophysicist with Stanford University.

Until now, researchers had to make do with what they could observe from the earth’s surface. The samples, along with the observatory, may answer many longstanding questions about the fault responsible for the 1906 earthquake and 1989’s Loma Prieta quake.

Geologists installed a steel channel in the fault to drill out core samples.

The samples include rock found all over California — along with serpentine, which comes from the earth’s crust on the ocean floor, Zoback said. That may provide a key clue regarding how active the San Andreas fault is, because serpentine, a relatively weak mineral, produces talc, an even weaker mineral. Talc’s friction-reducing properties may be lubricating the fault line.

“It could be that the San Andreas fault is located where it is because of where the serpentine is,” Zoback said. “And then the serpentine gets caught up and smeared along the length of the fault.”

Geologists chose the test site, in the small town of Parkside, because it has repeating “mini-earthquakes” that are not felt on the earth’s surface but provide a steady stream of data about the fault line’s movement over time, said William Ellsworth, a geologist with the USGS.

The observatory will consist of a 7-inch channel lined with scientific instruments that will study the fault over a 15-year period. Those instruments will detect clues regarding what happens before, during and after each quake and send data to computers on the earth’s surface for analysis.

“We don’t understand the physics that control the start of an earthquake, or why they stop,” Ellsworth said. “We’ve already recorded thousands of earthquakes and we’re beginning to see new physics not observed on the surface.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 4, 2007 at 10:43 PM

Peninsula garbage fleet goes green on grease

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 20, 2007

Local garbage trucks are now doing more than hauling trash — they’re fueled by it.

Allied Waste has become one of the biggest users of biodiesel in Northern California by converting its Peninsula fleet of 225 vehicles to run on fuel made from restaurant grease.

The reduction in carbon emissions is the equivalent of taking 315 cars off of local roads each year, said Evan Boyd, general manager for the waste company.

The move, announced Thursday, earned the region a commendation from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Because of you, 3.3 million pounds of carbon emissions will be terminated each year,” Schwarzenegger said in a message relayed by representative Barbara Kaufman. “I hope others will be inspired to follow your trail.”

To ensure an inexpensive, reliable fuel source, Allied is partnering with Watsonville-based Alternate Solutions, which reclaims waste oil from restaurants and turns it into fuel, Boyd said. Allied’s fleet uses 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year, picking up trash from 93,000 residences and 10,000 businesses in San Mateo County.

Meanwhile, the costs should be the same. While petroleum-based diesel costs roughly $2.30 a gallon, biodiesel costs $2.27 a gallon, Boyd said.

Many saw the move as an example of San Mateo County’s dedication to environmental action.

“This is another example of the Peninsula taking a leadership role in environmental advances,” said Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, who authored a controversial bill that would reward car buyers who choose hybrids. “It’s one thing to talk about reducing carbon emissions and another thing to actually do it.”

Ruskin also commended Allied for launching a curbside recycling program this month for household batteries and cell phones.

Allied Waste suffered a significant image problem in early 2006 after several audits by the South Bayside Waste Management Authority revealed the trash company missed as many as 9,500 trash pickups in 2005. In addition, its customers had to wait up to 45 minutes on hold to report problems.

“Allied’s performance has been much better this year,” said Brian Moura, former chairman of the SBWMA and assistant city manager in San Carlos. “Their main office intervened — and now they’re at the level of service we’d expect.”

Now, Allied hopes to serve as a model for other companies considering jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon, according to Boyd.

“We are in a race against time, battling against global warming,” Ruskin said, gesturing to the biodiesel trucks behind him. “These vehicles don’t look like race cars, but they are.”

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 20, 2007 at 10:19 PM

Deadly oak virus creeping down mountains

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
July 22, 2007

Sudden Oak Death — the disease that has killed thousands of oaks in California in the last 12 years — is descending from San Mateo County’s highlands and into residents’ yards.

The disease, caused by a fungus called Phytophthora ramorum, was first discovered in 1995, and has killed thousands of oaks and infected dozens of other species since then. Some of those species, particularly the pervasive Bay Laurel trees, seem to be a major vector for the disease’s spread, according to Ronald Pummer, deputy agricultural commissioner for San Mateo County.

The virus is beginning to spread from open-space preserves to the backyards of residents in wooded areas such as Woodside and Portola Valley. The town of Woodside will host a public workshop on Sudden Oak Death and its prevention Aug. 2.

“It seems to be moving into lower elevations than we saw previously,” Pummer said. “We have some in Hillsborough, Portola Valley — it’s moving down the mountainsides.”

While Sudden Oak Death hasn’t been spotted in San Mateo County’s flatlands, it could eventually make its way downhill, “as long as there are Bay Laurels there,” Pummer said.

Woodside resident Virginia Dare recently inoculated the large, old oak trees in her yard after seeing oaks dying of Sudden Oak Death on Old La Honda Road, near her property. Trees not yet infected with the fungus can be vaccinated with a fungicide — a step she and her neighbors took to prevent the disease from killing their trees.

“When an oak is dying on your property, it’s like losing a family member, to be honest,” said Dare, who is a member of Woodside’s Open Space Committee. “They are really irreplaceable.”

Because towns such as Woodside and Portola Valley are so heavily wooded, they wanted to teach residents about the disease and what can be done to identify it, or even halt its spread, according to Teresa Dentino, a member of Woodside’s Conservation and Environmental Health Committee.

Woodside is already working with the California Oak Mortality Task Force, county open-space agencies and fire departments to study Sudden Oak Death’s spread in the community, according to Dentino.

“As a town, we wanted to be very proactive about this issue,” Dentino said. “The trees are a resource, in terms of ecology and wildlife habitat, as well as the aesthetic component and maintaining what we really treasure here.”

Woodside will host a Sudden Oak Death workshop on Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Woodside Town Hall, 2955 Woodside Road.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 22, 2007 at 10:39 PM

Federal audit dings San Mateo county

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
July 16, 2007

A federal audit of the San Mateo County Housing Authority has turned up two significant potential violations, one of which could cost the county $2 million in repayments.

While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audits the authority routinely, most discrepancies and violations are resolved quickly, according to authority Director Duane Bay.

This time, HUD is investigating two issues — one related to fund transfers, and one related to 71 families who were bumped to the top of the waiting list for Section 8 housing — that could be more challenging to resolve.

Audits of paperwork from 2004 through 2006 show that the Housing Authority took $2.3 million from several of its funds to repay cost overruns incurred during the construction of Colma’s 30-unit El Camino Village project in 2001.

While HUD approved those internal loans, some of those approval documents have been lost during leadership changes at the County Housing Authority, Bay said.

In a separate alleged violation, the Housing Authority pulled 300 families from a list of those waiting for federally subsidized Section 8 housing and moved them into its Moving to Work program, which helps working families find housing. However, 71 of those families did not get housing. They were placed at the top of the Section 8 waiting list, Bay said.

“It turns out there’s a regulation that says if you [give a preference to working families], you have to also give a preference for seniors and disabled people,” Bay said.

At the time, HUD gave approval for the Housing Authority to move those families to the top of the waiting list, he added.

“We thought we were abiding by the rules, or we wouldn’t have done it,” Bay said.

If HUD disagrees with the Housing Authority’s stance, the county could be ordered to pay $2 million to the 71 families displaced from the top of the Section 8 waiting list.

San Mateo County’s Section 8 waiting list had 2,025 families on it as of July 1, according to Bill Lowell, deputy director of the Housing Authority. Most of those should be placed or will take themselves off the list by the end of 2007, he said.

HUD officials said they would not discuss the audit, citing confidentiality.

It could take another three months for HUD to make its findings public and to review the county’s response to its audit, according to Bay.

“We’re hoping that, through the appeal process, HUD will mitigate some of the sanctions,” Supervisor Jerry Hill said. “I hope they will not see fit to charge us.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 16, 2007 at 10:21 PM