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The view from the rooftop of the Aria Hotel Budapest.

Pet safety
Donation funds free shots, microchips at clinic for Napa Valley pets

AMERICAN CANYON — A gift has given back to Napa County pet owners – twice.

At a clinic Sunday in American Canyon, the owners of 155 dogs and cats lined up to bring in their furry companions for shots, tracking microchips, and spay and neuter vouchers – all offered free through the nonprofit Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch (JARR). It was a gift that drew the gratitude of many visitors enabled to protect their four-legged family members, without spending hundreds of dollars for a veterinarian visit.

“It’s a godsend; for my daughter, it’s a godsend,” said Debbie Donham of Vallejo as she held her daughter Kari’s 4-year-old Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix Midnight outside the city’s Senior Multi-Use Center – one of several dozen owners who queued up before the clinic opened at 11 a.m.

“This is a blessing like you would not believe. I cannot believe it’s true – I can’t express how grateful I am for this,” said Gina Bennett, whose 6-month-old cats Maurice Gibb and Lily Chops – rescued from shelters two weeks apart – stretched in separate carriers at her feet.

It was the second such event since January organized by JARR for the benefit of low-income and veteran pet owners, made possible by a $40,000 donation by the local philanthropist Beverly Wendel in memory of her late husband Barry Wendel, a psychologist and animal lover who died in 2014 at age 72. The group held an earlier clinic in Napa for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and is planning a third in Lake County this May, according to co-founder Monica Stevens.

Making the clinics possible was a promise to match donations to JARR dollar for dollar, an effort Beverly Wendel said was inspired by the couple’s past donations to animal rescue programs. In particular, the gift was intended to increase the number of spayed and neutered pets to reduce the homeless animal population, she told the St. Helena Star in December.

The seasonal increase in feline births made Sunday’s program, JARR’s third in American Canyon, all the more timely for pet welfare, according to Stevens.

“We like to get in at the front end, especially with cats, because the kitten season is upon us,” she said of the spay-neuter vouchers, which JARR is offering in partnership with Napa Humane. “This is a constant need; we expect people from Napa, Solano, even Sonoma – that tells you what the need is.”

“It’s very valuable; it enables people who are strapped for money to do the right thing by their dogs,” said Robert Vega, an American Canyon resident who arrived to get shots for his 4-year-old bichon-poodle brothers Hugo and Chiva. “And free always tends to be the clincher there.”

Once inside the senior center building, teams of volunteers tended to dogs in one room and cats in another. Tables bore dozens of small syringes to vaccinate the pets against rabies, distemper, parvovirus and other diseases – as well as treats to soothe the more frightened or jumpy patients before their shots.

One of the shortest trips to the American Canyon clinic was the block-long stroll by Destiny Peña, who carried her 2-month-old puppy Winston to be chipped “because he’s everywhere,” she admitted with a laugh. “If he does escape, somebody’s gonna take him and they won’t want to give him back!”

Waiting her turn outside the clinic, Peña soon made conversation with the woman next in line, Rachel Wilkes of Vallejo, while Winston curiously nuzzled Wilkes’ four-footed friend Prince.

“Last year, we lost a cat, which I never got vaccinated,” recalled Wilkes before nodding toward the dog in her lap. “I decided we’d make sure we didn’t let anything happen to him.”

Public Works
Big sewer project to lighten loads on lines in west Napa

Napa Sanitation District plans to move ahead with its big Browns Valley sewer line project on several busy city streets starting this spring, despite a price tag $4.7 million higher than expected.

The district will delay some valve and piping projects at the treatment plant to fill the financing hole. Officials consider the Browns Valley Trunk Project and its three miles of new sewers a priority.

Wastewater from west Napa presently flows through downtown sewer pipes on its way to a pump station near Imola Avenue, and from there to the wastewater treatment plant. The Browns Valley Trunk will take west Napa flows directly to the pump station, bypassing the downtown pipes.

Napa Sanitation District officials said having less flows in the downtown pipes will make a difference during big winter storms, when groundwater enters the pipes through cracks. When sewer lines get swamped, wastewater can bubble out of manholes.

“We have pipes in our system that are over capacity,” NapaSan General Manager Tim Healy said. “When we get heavy rains, those pipes can overflow. The Browns Valley project will take pressure off those lines.”

Construction of the Browns Valley Trunk project is to start in May and be finished in fall 2020, with drivers having at times to put up with some traffic inconvenience such as reduced lanes.

“I think there certainly will be traffic impacts,” Healy said. “When you’re putting a large diameter pipe in the middle of town, it will certainly have some impacts.”

The district will do everything it can to alleviate traffic inconveniences, he said. One goal is to get as much work done as possible during the summer when school is out. Another is to avoid doing work by the Napa Premium Outlets during the Christmas season.

The new sewer line is to extend from Browns Valley Road near Thompson Avenue east on First Street, south on Freeway Drive past the Napa Premium Outlets to Old Sonoma Road, east under Highway 29 and then to a pump station near Imola Avenue via Sycamore Street, Spruce Street and Coombs Street.

Work won’t happen simultaneously in all locations. Healy said most likely the project will start at Coombs Street and Imola Avenue and work westward.

Partial lane closures could be required on Browns Valley Road, Freeway Drive, Old Sonoma Road and Coombs Street, the project environmental report said. Highway 29 will not be closed, but rather a tunnel will be created beneath the highway near Old Sonoma Road with pits on each side for a trenchless undercrossing.

Contractors must, if feasible, maintain access to all driveways and private roads by placing steel plates over trenches, the environmental report said.

About 90 trees may have to be pruned along the project’s path and five incense cedars and raywood ash removed at the intersection of Old Sonoma Road and South Freeway Drive, the report said.

On Wednesday, the Napa Sanitation District Board of Directors awarded a $23.3 million contract to JMB Construction. The highest of four other bids received was $32.4 million. The engineer’s estimate was $18.6 million.

That means the low bid is $4.7 million higher than the district estimate.

‘‘It’s a pretty tight bidding market right now,” Healy said. “If you look around, contractors are pretty busy and construction costs are going up on all kind of projects.”

The district had considered putting the project out to bid in late 2017. It delayed to seek state financing to save an estimated $10 million over the 30-year life of the loan.

The Browns Valley project will bring sewage to the West Napa pump station, which pumps sewage under the Napa River into a 66-inch diameter line along the east Napa River leading to the sewage treatment plant in the airport industrial area. But therein lies another story.

This 66-inch pipe that runs for three miles was built in 1967. While the exterior is sound, the interior has deteriorated with concrete wall loss and exposed rebar, a new district report said.

As a result, 1.3 miles of the line has no remaining useful life and 1.7 miles has 10 years to 15 years of remaining useful life. Rehabilitating the pipe could cost $25 million, compared to a $100-million-plus cost to replace it, the report said.

In short, another major sewage line project appears to be in the offing.

Health Care
St. Helena-based health insurance provider evolves to serve wine industry

A low-profile St. Helena supplier of health insurance for agricultural employees is swapping out its wine-rooted name for a broader label.

Formerly the California Grower Foundation, the newly christened Ag Health Benefits Alliance of Northern California (AHBA) traces its origins to the early 1970s and a group of grape growers aiming to offer health insurance to farmworkers years before it was required by law.

The name change today comes with the company’s hopes of staving off confusion between it and a bevy of other similarly named groups, among them the California Growers Association, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the Winegrowers of Napa County, and so on.

Originally founded specifically with vineyard workers in mind, the company aimed to provide medical insurance, pension benefits and a vacation plan, which employers would pay for with an assessment on wages.

Among the company’s seven founding growers was Ren Harris, owner of Paradigm winery in Oakville and a founder of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers industry group. Today, the AHBA board of directors is a who’s who from grape growing companies like Mike Wolf Vineyard Services, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Arkenstone and the Sonoma branch of E&J Gallo, all of which are AHBA clients.

“Way back then, employers weren’t required to provide health benefits,” said Rebecca Barlow, executive director of AHBA. “But this group, the growers, realized it’s something they should do, and that they wanted to, because they value the field workers. So they were really quite a bit ahead of their time.”

Rumblings of unionization in areas like Kern County also helped spur the company’s creation. “Definitely there was an underlying tension between employees and employers at that time,” Barlow said. Growers further realized that benefits and health insurance could also be used to attract workers and get them to stay, Barlow added, “as opposed to a lot of crops where employees migrate back and forth.”

New laws in 1999 ended the ability of insurance carriers to offer the kinds of plans for small employers the company provided, Barlow said. Thus a pivot to the Western Growers Assurance Trust lets the company now dole out its group health plan for 87 employers, the majority of which are vineyard management companies in Napa.

With the Affordable Care Act of 2013, the company also added an insurance agency to its folds, allowing employers to go through them for plans from providers other than the Western Growers Assurance Trust.

In all, the company is the last of five such co-ops founded in the 1970s. “We’ve managed to remain viable because we’ve evolved. We’ve made big changes to keep what we offer current,” said Barlow. “We try to make it as simple to understand and affordable as possible.”

Today, the company provides health insurance for over 1,500 agricultural professionals and their families, and can also offer health insurance to seasonal workers, depending on employers.

Apart from health plans, the company also deals in compliance administration, dental, vision, life, long-term disability and an Employee Assistance Program. Employers have also contributed to a Pension Plan that so far has paid more than $25 million in pension benefits.