Union Democrat staff

"I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Those words - especially as more and more paternalistic federal and state agencies try to improve our lives - can throw a chill through even the most stalwart of citizens.

The latest cold snaps have come from Sacramento, which is less than 100 miles away from Sonora and Angels Camp but might as well be in another solar system.

How else would you explain the California Air Resource Board's decision to crack down - and crack down hard, with fines of $10,000 or more - on gas stations not meeting the latest vapor control requirements? And doing so in the midst of a grinding recession, when owners can least afford the upgrade?

Since April 1,149 stations have been fined and another 64 - including Mountain Ranch's only station - have closed down rather than face the fines.

"What are they thinking?" would be the first question the state's irrational actions might prompt. The obvious answer is that they're not.

Although adopted and enforced under the banner of clean air, the latest mandated station improvements cost about $11,000 per pump.

And what do you get for that 11 grand? A system that captures 98 percent off all fuel vapors - which sounds pretty good until you realize that current hardware catches 95 percent.

There is some positive news amidst all this excessive and unnecessary regulation:

• First, State Sen. Dave Cox became concerned enough with the plight of service stations in Calaveras County and other parts of his district to introduce legislation extending the compliance deadline by a year.

"The inability of air control officers to understand the economic impact and financial strain of their regulations defies common sense," said the Fair Oaks Republican. Which leads us to that second layer of silver.

• Air pollution control officers in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, where about 20 stations remain out of compliance are not levying fines. "We do not want to enforce a regulation that hurts these mom-and-pop stations," reasoned Bill Sandman, deputy air pollution control officer for Tuolumne County. "There's no reason to jump the gun and just start issuing penalties," said Lakhmir Grewal, Calaveras County's air pollution control officer, adding that almost all the local non-complying stations have permits to get the work and will eventually comply.

So, in a state where air pollution cops are levying huge fines "because they can," come voices of practicality, common sense and, believe it or not, compassion. Our air pollution officers should be commended. They are examples of how government ought to work.

Kudos should also go out to Tuolumne County Public Works Director Peter Rei, who took the time to examine another recession-era gift from Sacramento and found it lacking.

At issue was Assembly Bill 1409, which would require counties to call for bids on road work estimated to cost $25,000 or more. Typically, such small jobs are now done "in house" by county road crews.

Although AB 1409 is aimed at helping contractors during the recession, Rei last week warned the Board of Supervisors that the red tape and time involved in putting small road projects out to bid will cost the county both time and money - boosting project prices by up to 35 percent due to prevailing-wage rules and bringing delays of up to a year.

With the county's already grim budget outlook, Rei told the board, Tuolumne County can ill afford to accept such gifts from Sacramento.