Local News

Sunday, Feb 21 2010 01:35 PM

Weedpatch is waiting to see the light

By The Bakersfield Californian

They don't have much in Weedpatch.

In case you don't know, Weedpatch is that area of homes sandwiched in between Lamont on the north and Arvin on the south along a stretch of Weedpatch Highway also known as state route 184.

Community organizers from the Dolores Huerta Foundation have been busy talking with community residents who complain of a lack of streetlights. And with good reason.

Some streets are literally in the dark.

Walking in this rural area at night can present some real challenges to local residents, everything from stepping into a hole to something much worse.

And it raises the concern of school officials, such as Emma Pereida-Martinez, superintendent/principal of Vineland School District.

"It impacts the safety of our students and the families that attend many of our supplemental and after-school programs," said Pereida-Martinez.

These programs and activities run well into the evening and let out when it is dark.

Many parents and students rely on school bus transportation to get to and from school and programs. Once students and their families depart the bus at a designated stop, they walk to their homes on those unlit streets.

"Street lighting is essential in this community and should not go unresolved," said the superintendent.

Maria Yepez of the Dolores Huerta Foundation has walked the dark streets of Weedpatch in her role as a community organizer. It's her job to make contact with the residents, listen to their concerns and then try and address issues that affect their quality of life.

"It looks horrible out there at night," said Yepez. "People don't want to go out for a walk in the evening because it's so dark. It's perfect for drugs and gang activity to continue to flourish."

In September, Yepez contacted the office of Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio for help.

Staff member Mark Salvaggio began looking into the matter and immediately made contact with the Lamont Public Utility District, which has jurisdiction over Weedpatch. Salvaggio requested the district to see what the feasibility was of securing more streetlights for Weedpatch.

But bureaucracy has a way of showing up in even the most of simple requests.

In December, District General Manager Richard St. Claire responded by saying that he had brought up the issue before the capital committee and requested from PG&E the cost for installing the lights onto the existing poles.

"Once we have this information from PG&E, the LPUD will then submit the appropriate application to PG&E for all 12 requested street lights," said St. Clair in an e-mail response to Salvaggio. "The lights should be installed by the end of the month or the beginning of January."

But as mentioned, red tape can drag on.

While the district says it was awaiting information from PG&E about which rate it would charge the district for the street lights, Salvaggio found out PG&E was awaiting information from the district about the location and number of street lights.

It appeared neither side could move forward without first hearing from the other.

This irked Salvaggio, especially since PG&E was willing to hang the lights for free.

"This is no small issue to residents of this poor community. It is the stuff that improves the quality of life for people," Salvaggio said.

Census figures show that Weedpatch has close to 3,000 residents with a median household income of $19,839. A little more than 40 percent of the families there live at or below the poverty level. It has a young population with a median age of 23 years and is considered one of the poorest areas in Kern County.

This month, it appears the district was finally able to gather all the needed information and another committee determined the district can afford to pay for the street lights from the monthly water fees collected.

The district board is expected to vote and approve the request at its next meeting on tonight at 6 p.m.

Hopefully then the streetlights will be installed in a timely manner.

There are other areas in the county that are equally in the dark, but that's another story.

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "29 Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian's. E-mail him at jgaspar@bakersfield.com.

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