Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Small town government run amok (Part VIII): Expose on nonmetro sheriff's department in rural northern California

Ryan Sabalow and Jason Pohl report in today's Sacramento Bee, out of Del Norte County, California, population 28,610, about malfeasance--or perhaps just negligence--on the part of the sheriff's office there. Here's a quote from the lengthy, front-page story:  

There’s a motto among locals in this coastal corner of Northern California, a rugged place where tourists ambling among the redwoods outnumber residents living in Crescent City. 

“There’s no law north of the Klamath,” a nod to the river at the county’s southern border with Humboldt County. 

Locals still mention the saying — which dates back to the unruly 19th-century Gold Rush — when they talk about the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office. 

The office has been struggling with a series of departures and scandals that have some in the community questioning whether the department is so dysfunctional that it cannot safely perform its duties and protect the public. At least two dozen sheriff’s office employees have left the department since January 2020, an average of more than one a month. It’s a disproportionate number for the department that currently employs just 60 people.

This framing in terms of rural lawlessness reminds me of my theorization of these issues in relation to rural spatiality, inability to achieve economies of scale and general lack of resources, as discussed here.  

Earlier posts featuring or mentioning Del Norte County are here.  

Sunday, October 10, 2021

On liberal Democrats organizing and politicking efforts in rural communities

Mica Soellner reports in the conservative Washington Times, featuring candidates and organizers from various "red" or "reddish" rural communities.  One of the candidates features is Jessica Piper, who is running for Missouri legislature from the northwest part of the state.  Images are from her Twitter feed.

Also featured is Anderson Clayton of Roxboro, North Carolina, whose work was highlited in the Daily Yonder here a few months ago.  Clayton recently helped elect a Democratic majority--including two African American women--to the Roxboro City Council.  Clayton is chair of the Democratic Party of Person County.  Read more here.  

Friday, October 8, 2021

How feasible are electric vehicles in rural America?

Tesla Superchargers, Mount Shasta, California
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

The headline for Mike Seely's recent New York Times piece asserts that "Rural America's Roads Might Resemble Cuba's in 20 Years."  The crux of the story is, "As the nation shifts to electric vehicles, picture well-kept but long discontinued gas-powered pickups, especially in areas where charging stations may be sparse."  An excerpt follows:  

As the world’s cars become electric, it might be logical to presume that the mechanical wizardry required to repair a classic internal-combustion car within two hours will become a deeply discounted skill. After all, President Biden has announced that he would like to see electric vehicles account for 50 percent of all new U.S. car sales by 2030.  Fully electric vehicles currently account for about 2 percent of new car sales in the United States.

While the cause won’t be trade embargoes but rather this coming generational shift to electric cars, experts say it’s possible that American roads could resemble Cuba for a spell, with older cars running on gasoline engines kept in circulation long after they ordinarily would have been traded in for another fuel-burning model.

“We think there will be Cuba, especially in the rural areas of the U.S.,” said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Cox Automotive. Battery advancements will be crucial to making progress on the number of electric cars on the road, she added. “Range is really important to people in faraway places; you have to drive long distances just to get to the grocery store,” Ms. Krebs said.

This recent Washington Monthly piece by Matthew Metz and Janelle London takes up another angle on adoption of electric vehicles:  how to structure the tax incentives to get more folks--especially folks who drive more--into electric vehicles.  The subhead sums things up, "Bigger rewards to gasoline 'superusers' will reduce carbon emissions more quickly.  Paradoxically, it may also diminish economic inequality."  Here is an excerpt:

Like so many things in the U.S., gasoline consumption in the U.S. by cars and light trucks is distributed unequally. According to our research, the drivers in the top 10 percent of gasoline consumption, whom we call “gasoline superusers,” each burn upward of 1,000 gallons of gasoline per year. Collectively they consume 32 percent of all gasoline. The top 20 percent of drivers burn about half of all gasoline.

Based on National Highway Travel Survey data, we know that about 64 percent of gasoline superusers drive pickup trucks and SUVs, compared to 41 percent of other drivers. Superusers drive about 30,000 miles a year, nearly three times the average for other drivers, and they’re more likely than other drivers to live in rural places. Among metro areas, Houston, Detroit, and St. Louis have the highest concentration of superusers. In the Washington, D.C. metro area, 6.6 percent of drivers are superusers, and collectively they burn 22 percent of the region’s gasoline.

Heavy gas mileage takes a toll on your checkbook. Superusers spend on average 8 percent of their household income on gasoline and up to 20 percent for moderate- and lower-income superusers. But purchase incentives for electric vehicles don’t take gasoline usage into account. Indeed, it’s the lowest-mileage, higher-income drivers who are most likely to avail themselves of such incentives. The median household income of a Prius owner was estimated a few years ago by J.D. Power to be $108,283.

The poorer you are, the less likely you are to own an electric vehicle. Did we mention that cars are expensive?

The obvious solution is a redistribution of electric vehicle incentives toward superusers. An EV incentive of $10 per gallon of past annual average gasoline use would bestow $15,000 on a pickup truck driver burning 1,500 gallons a year. That’s a meaningful incentive for pickup and SUV drivers to buy electric versions of those vehicles now coming on the market.

All of this important analysis reminds me of the related struggle to find charging stations in rural areas.  A student wrote a blog post about this in her hometown, Ukiah, California, a few years ago.  I noticed when I was planning a trip home from Mount Shasta this past weekend that I could not reliably get to all of the places I wanted to go off I-5 (where charging stations are reasonably plentiful).  In particular, I was frustrated that I could not reliably drive home via Plumas and Lassen counties because the only charging stations in the Lassen County seat, Susanville, are not superchargers.  Indeed, it looked as if only patrons of two specific Susanville motels/hotels are permitted to use their so-called destination chargers, and I had no plan to stay at either.  (Destination chargers are like the ones Tesla owners have at their homes; they take hours to full charge a vehicle, whereas superchargers can do so in half an hour).  Adding to my aggravation and uncertainty was the fact that some maps showed a tranche of superchargers at a Susanville casino, but I ultimately concluded it had not yet been built, but was merely at the planning stage.  So, rather than travel home via these northern Sierra and high desert counties, where I wanted to survey the Dixie Fire damage, I just came home via I-5.  

Certainly, I can imagine living and working in Plumas or Lassen County and not being willing to go electric because of the high cost of electric vehicles and the relative lack of charging infrastructure.  These are problems that must be solved if widespread adoption of electric vehicles in rural places is to occur.  

All of this reminds me that one of the upcoming talks in the Rural Reconciliation series will be about transportation. Greg Shill of the University of Iowa will speak on that topic on January 27, 2022.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A Day in the Life of a Central Valley town

Priscella Vega reported for the Los Angeles Times this week out of Stratford, California, population 1,277, an unincorporated community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley.  Vega's story, with photos by Brian van der Brug, is mostly a "day in the life" feature on this King County community.  The town is being sapped by drought, even as immigrants and others struggle to hang on--even innovating and seeking grants to help them put on festivals and events.  

But like many rural towns in the American West, Stratford, about 40 miles south of Fresno in Kings County, is a shell of even its humble heyday. It’s fading amid ever-rising temperatures, years of drought and recession.

Westlake Farms, once the biggest employer in town, scaled down its 65,000 acres and had massive layoffs in 2000 to a bare bones operation. U.S. Census figures show Stratford’s population shrank from 1,277 in 2010 to 901 in 2020.

Land sinks here, sometimes at nearly historic high rates of more than 1 foot per year, because of excessive groundwater pumping. Out of its four wells, Stratford can only rely on one — the others are unreliable and are unusable.

People in Stratford have tried to do what they can to help it stay afloat. The latest business to open, a taco truck, arrived at the town’s request. To raise money to revitalize the town, a nonprofit called Reestablishing Stratford applies for local grants and receives donations from local clubs and residents to host 5K runs, food drives and even haunted mazes for Halloween.

“Small towns like this remind you of all those little positive traditions that maybe big cities start to lose,” said Robert Isquierdo Jr., a former resident who co-founded the nonprofit with Chavez.

It's a poignant, yet somewhat hopeful story, well worth a read in its entirety.  An earlier story by Vega, also out of the Valley, is featured here.  

Monday, October 4, 2021

Rural California schools and transitional kindergarten

Steve Kellner attends briefly to rural difference in his essay for Cal Matters, "Universal Transitional Kindergarten Will Be a Game Changer."  

On a Tuesday evening in May, third-grade teacher Clara Yanez and second-grade teacher Jackie Gonzalez stood in front of their board of education and asked them to count little plastic farm animals.

While not a typical agenda item at Buttonwillow Union Elementary School, this exercise in “counting collections” was a way for these teachers to show board members the building blocks of coherence from preschool to third grade. Counting is essential to all years of early math, and this lesson design helps breakdown barriers that separate the grade levels.

Common classroom practices are an important first step in creating a collaborative environment where teachers and students benefit from a consistency between grade levels.
* * *

Creating a 14th grade in our public schools is a game changer, especially for students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes and students who are English Learners. But the promise of transitional kindergarten will fall short if it is created as a stand-alone program across California’s 1,000 school districts.

Although high-quality education for 4-year-olds is difficult to access even in the state’s largest districts located in densely populated urban centers, most of California’s districts are small, less than 2,500 students, and located in rural areas, further compounding the challenge of early education options. Since many of these districts are often the community’s largest employer, the opportunity to provide transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds will fill a critical equity gap toward accessing early education across California.
* * *
Back in Buttonwillow, board members successfully grouped their plastic farm animals into groups of threes and fours to complete the lesson. Although this activity alone won’t create coherence, Yanez and Gonzalez both expressed that they were glad the board members had a tangible example of how teachers work together across grade levels.

“Even in our small district it is important to give our board members a connection to the student experience,” they remarked. Stuart Packard, superintendent at Buttonwillow noted that the board presentation was “an opportunity for our teacher-leaders to showcase their quality teamwork over the past year. Their perseverance to continue the focus on coherence even during distance learning was commendable.”

Friday, October 1, 2021

On the rise and (at least temporary) fall of Dollar General

Michael Corkery of the New York Times reports today on the struggles of Dollar General and other stores that cater to low-income populations:  
the unbridled success of dollar stores and their business model, which has benefited from the prevalence of poverty and disinvestment in the inner cities and rural America. Dollar stores, which pay among the lowest wages in the retail industry and often operate in areas where there is little competition, are stumbling in the later stages of the pandemic.

Sales are slowing and some measures of profit are shrinking as the industry struggles with a confluence of challenges. They include burned-out workers, pressure to increase wages, supply chain problems and a growing number of cities and towns that are rejecting new dollar stores because, they say, the business model harms their communities.

Prior posts about Dollar General (or at last mentioning it) are here.  Interestingly, I noticed a Dollar General visible from I-5 as I drove through Dunsmuir, California yesterday.  I don't recall it being there last time I visited, in summer of 2018.  

Thursday, September 30, 2021

More rural community, again out of Montana

My last post was about how folks in rural places--specifically those in proximity to the Amtrak crash last weekend--came together to help others.  Now comes an even more thoroughly feel-good story out of Montana, from the New York Times, about Jeff Ament's investment in Montana communities.  He's a member of Pearl Jam, and his foundation is building a skate park in every Montana city or town that will have one, from the Blackfeet reservation to post Bozeman.   Here are some excerpts: 

Ament has paid for, or helped pay for, 27 skate parks, most of them in Montana. He has also helped build three on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Three more are planned for reservations in Montana and South Dakota, including one at Wounded Knee.
* * *

Ament weathered his own emotional storms, he said, with the help of a backyard skateboard ramp in a small and remote Montana town called Big Sandy, where he grew up. Skateboarding, he says from personal experience, is deeply therapeutic for disaffected youth in similar places.

* * * 

Growing up in Big Sandy, with fewer than 600 people, Ament said, the highlight was dinner at the nearest Dairy Queen, a half an hour away. His father was the Big Sandy barber, drove a school bus and raised chickens, pigs and cows.

Rural Montana towns are often big on team sports, particularly basketball and football, even when the towns are so small they can only field six-man football teams. Ament was a standout in multiple sports, and was offered a scholarship as an all-state linebacker. But there is always a subset of young people who aren’t cut out for team sports, and are in need of another outlet.

Ament grew up near the Rocky Boy’s reservation and knows second-hand the extra difficulty of life on a reservation. Skateboarding, and going to skate parks, “gives kids a reason to see the rest of the state, the rest of the country and possibly the rest of the world,” he said. “There’s an old-school mentality that says you are giving up on your community if you leave and go to college somewhere else.” He shook his head.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Rural community vignettes from the Montana Amtrak crash

It's been interesting to see how journalists --especially national journalists--have described what happened yesterday with the Amtrak derailment in Joplin, Montana (population just a couple hundred folks) in Liberty County, population 2,339.  The New York Times story today includes some interesting comments from a man who was on the Empire Builder when it derailed, Steve Glaser, 66, along with officials and residents of this remote corner of Montana.    

After the crash, Mr. Glaser said “the community took over.”

Sarah Robbin, the disaster emergency services coordinator for Liberty County, Mont., one of the most rural counties in the state, had spent much of her time over the past few years playing out a scenario like this in her head and planning how best to respond.

In each of the small towns that dot Route 2, which cuts through northern Montana along the railroad tracks, there are just a few hundred to a few thousand residents. The nearest major hospital is hours away by car. Emergency services are sparse.

“We are a small county,” she said, adding that anything like Saturday’s crash “would immediately overwhelm us. Being small and rural, relying on your neighbors is extremely important.”
In the town of Chester, about 7 to 8 miles west of the derailment, a siren system alerts the 1,000 or so residents to any important news. One ring signals a city meeting. Two, an ambulance. Three, a fire call. And four, “some terrible disaster,” said Jesse Anderson, who owns the MX Motel, a 20-room stopover that typically caters to anglers, construction workers and hunters.

When Mr. Anderson heard four sirens yesterday, he assumed it was a mistake. But then he saw fire trucks speeding through the 25 miles-per-hour main street.

“We had no idea it was going to be something of this scale,” he said.

Emergency responders from across at least seven counties rushed in to help. As the only motel for 50 miles, east or west, Mr. Anderson was called on to house some of the passengers. He offered his available rooms free of charge.

Families from a nearby Hutterite colony brought food for passengers while they waited for rides and lodging in the school gym. 

Here's a post from July about the strain on rural ambulance service in places like Montana and Wyoming, where fewer people are stepping up to do the work.  

Friday, September 24, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CLIII): Yesterday's winner is today's loser

That is a tenet of investing that my financial advisor has often endorsed.  Rececntly, I've seen that it applies to the coronavirus.  Alaska was an early winner, especially in the race to get folks vaccinated, as discussed here and hereDitto West Virginia.  

Now, however, Alaska's health care system is struggling, as the New York Times reports here.  This excerpt focuses on those in rural and remote areas of the state, where many are Alaska Natives: 

Jared Kosin, the head of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, called the surge “crippling” in an interview on Tuesday. He added that hospitals were full, and health care workers were emotionally depleted. Patients recently were kept waiting for care in their cars outside overwhelmed emergency rooms.

There is growing anxiety in outlying communities that depend on transferring seriously ill patients to hospitals in Anchorage, Mr. Kosin said. Transfers are getting harder to arrange and are often delayed, he said.

“We are all wondering where this goes, and whether that transfer will be available, even tomorrow,” Mr. Kosin said.

Critically ill people in rural areas, where many Alaska Natives reside, often have to be taken by plane to a hospital that can provide the treatment they need, said Dr. Philippe Amstislavski, an associate professor of public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Unlike in the lower 48, you don’t have that ability to move people quickly, because of the distances and remoteness,” said Dr. Amstislavski, who was formerly the public health manager for the Interior Region of Alaska, focusing on rural and predominantly Alaska Native communities.

West Virginia is also facing a new coronavirus wave, as NPR reported here.  Just 46% of the state's 1.8 million residents are vaccinated.  This excerpt leads with a quote from Governor Jim Justice, who touts the vaccine nearly every day:

JUSTICE: If you have chosen to be unvaccinated, in my opinion, it was a bad choice. And you know what we're going to be? We're going to be respectful of that till the cows come home. The reality is, no matter what we say here, a lot of what we say is falling on deaf ears.

[Journalist June] LEFFLER: The importance of vaccines is clear. In West Virginia, those who aren't vaccinated make up 85% of COVID-19 hospital admissions. Many smaller hospitals have maxed out their bed capacities. When that happens, patients can be sent to other hospitals. Jim Kaufman, the president of the West Virginia Hospital Association, says transferring patients might not be an option soon.

JIM KAUFMAN: You're actually seeing a bed crunch pretty much across the state. So what they're trying to do is basically stabilize the patients, take care of the patients where they can because the ability to transfer has been greatly restricted.

LEFFLER: More than 800 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in West Virginia. Kaufman expects that number to reach 1,000 in just a few weeks. 

An earlier story about West Virginia's vaccine efforts is here, this one from the non-profit news source, 100 Days in Appalachia.  

Another state with substantial rural reaches, where COVID has been raging, is Idaho.  I don't know that Idaho had a prior honeymoon period with the coronavirus, but it's certainly struggling now, as documented here, here, and here.  The latter is about Washington governor Jay Inslee's plea to Idahoans to "stop clogging up" his state's hospitals.  

Postscript:  Here's Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical office, on NPR on Sept. 25, 2021, with more on the state's COVID strain.  She says this is the worst surge Alaska has seen during the whole pandemic, with one in five of those in the hospital suffering from COVID.  An interesting factoid:  the average Alaskan travels 150 miles to access care.  Zinke explains the logistical challenges in terms of Bethel and the Kuskokwim River Delta:   

The YKHC Delta, which is this big, beautiful region, serves 60 villages in that region. And so they are really struggling with, who do they ship in via flight to their hub hospital, Bethel? And then who do they get out into Anchorage based on just the lack of bed availability, the lack of staffing?

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

On prioritizing rural community, in the context of an extractive economy

Colin Jerolmack's book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town,” was published earlier this year by Princeton University Press, and this past weekend, Jerolmack published a related opinion essay in the New York Times.  The essay features some common themes in this era of fracking, especially in Pennsylvania, where it has drawn so much attention.  But some things set Jerolmack's essay about Mary and Tom Crawley apart, and I'll excerpt just a few of them below.  Bottom line:  the Crawley's prioritized their relations with their neighbors, some of whom were making money off licenses for fracking, over looking out for themselves and their own property values: 

I couldn’t understand why the Crawleys refused to go public with their story — which might pressure the petroleum company to remedy the situation, or speak with the Responsible Drilling Alliance — which vowed to help them secure a pro bono lawyer. They had nothing to lose, I thought. But as I sat and listened, I learned that the Crawleys’ decision to stay quiet wasn’t about what was in it for them. It was about defending their community.

“The couple that has the property the well is on now, they — I work with their daughter and she says that Mom and Dad really feel bad about this all happening,” Mr. Crawley explained. His wife chimed in, “They’re very upset. He’s afraid everybody would blame him.” Mr. Crawley emphasized that his “major concern with this whole deal is somebody harassing” his neighbors or “camping out” on their property.
* * *
“Do you have the right to come protesting in my area because of something that’s not going to affect you and you live 100, 200 miles away?,” Mr. Crawley asked of the so-called fractivists. He wondered how many of them “live in a high-rise building that’s heated by gas.”
* * *
Part of their reasoning was that fracking benefited others, like their neighbor whose family farm was no longer a millstone to unload now that it was bringing in gas royalties, or the friend who was laid off but found a better-paying job driving a water truck for the oil and gas industry. In other words, it mattered to the Crawleys that their neighbors supported fracking and benefited from it.
* * *
Of the six neighbors on Green Valley Road who settled with the petroleum company, only the Crawleys remain. Mr. Finkler died of cancer. But the rest abandoned their homes and moved far away.
* * *
Despite the Crawleys’ best efforts, they lost the one thing they cherished more than clean water: their community.

Eventually, the Crawleys also settled with the energy company responsible for polluting their water.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Lawyers scramble to represent California wildfire victims as plaintiffs

Ad from my Twitter feed, Sept. 26, 2021

Lily Jamali reported for KQED, in a story picked up by National Public Radio yesterday.  It's about lawyers, local and from far away, soliciting clients at an event in Plumas County, amidst the Dixie Fire rubble.  The lawyers want to represent those damaged by the Dixie Fire in a lawsuit against PG & E, or anyone else who may be found responsible for the fire's recent destruction.  It's an important story that names names, meaning names of attorneys who've represented plaintiffs in relation to other lawsuits, like those arising from the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise.  And those lawyers have not always made good on their representations to clients.  At the end of the audio story is an admonition from the Plumas County District attorney to residents to choose their attorney wisely.  

An August, 2021 Wall Street Journal story on the shortcomings of the litigation against PG&E that arose  from the Camp Fire is here.