County officials travel to D.C. for ‘freeze' funding

By Reggie Ellis

A delegation of Tulare County officials traveled to Washington, D.C. last week to lobby for funding following a devastating citrus freeze that is expected to leave thousands of farmworkers unemployed.

Leading the group was Supervisor Allen Ishida, who said the delegation met with several Congressmen, both California senators, the governor's office, the White House and representatives from the Department of Agriculture.

&#8220The trip went extremely well because we didn't have to go back to Washington and educate them on the freeze,” Ishida said. &#8220There was some institutional memory from the freezes in 1990 and 1998.”

Joining Ishida were Lindsay Mayor Ed Murray, Vice Mayor Pam Kimball, Community Development Coordinator Diane Bucaroff, Supervisor Steve Worthley, County Administrative Officer Brian Haddix Tulare City Councilman Carlton Jones and Porterville Mayor Cam Hamilton.

Murray said county officials met non-stop with legislators and government agencies with only about 30 minutes in between each session. He said it was important to meet with so many because the lines of communication in Washington doesn't always work fast enough to meet the needs of an economic disaster.

&#8220A freeze doesn't capture the same media attention like flooding with [Hurricane] Katrina, or the tsunami did. There isn't a visible path of destruction. With oranges, the devastation isn't something you can see on TV,” Murray said.

In a meeting with Diane Feinstein, the California senator wrote a check for $1,000 to the United Way of Tulare County, the agency handling donations for the county's Freeze Relief Task Force.

Murray said one of Lindsay's biggest concerns providing monetary assistance to farmworkers, and more specifically, undocumented farmworkers who don't qualify for unemployment.

&#8220Every time we brought up undocumented workers we were slapped down for funding,” Murray said. &#8220We couldn't get them to understand that these people are our neighbors, we go to the same church and our kids go to school together.”

Lindsay is one of many cities asking for federal funding to temporarily employ farmworkers until agricultural jobs pick back up again in the summer season. Lindsay said it could use the manpower for beautification projects that are needed as part of its major downtown redevelopment.

Ishida, who farms citrus near Lindsay, said the real problem is not unemployment, but underemployment. Most packinghouse will continue operating but only on a part-time basis, so many workers will make too much money to qualify for unemployment but not enough money to pay rent, utilities or feed their families. Ishida said legislation has been introduced to raise the amount of money a worker can make and still collect unemployment.

&#8220I am amazed and grateful that Washington has this under control,” Ishida said. &#8220Everything seems to be running smooth.”

Each county affected by the freeze has been tallying statistics on crop damage for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to include in a formal request for Washington to declare 31 of California's counties in a state of major disaster. Schwarzenegger, who already declared a state of emergency for 17 counties on Jan. 16, sent that request to the White House last Friday. A declaration by the president could provide federal relief to the state's agricultural industry.

Citrus farmers and workers in Tulare County were at the epicenter of the economic disaster. The freeze damaged 80% of the county's immature Valencia oranges and 53% of the navel crop, a $451 million commodity, second to milk among top in the county. Navel oranges are planted on more than 81,000 acres in Tulare County. The Ag Commissioner's office has estimated that damage will cost will exceed $418 million and more than 3,000 farmworkers will be left unemployed.

According to the County Ag Commissioner's office, about 3,000 people are directly employed in the county's citrus industry and more than 200 businesses are directly involved in growing, harvesting and packaging citrus products.

In his letter to the president on Friday, Schwarzenegger requested unemployment assistance, food coupons and distribution, food commodities, crisis counseling, and assistance for low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

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