Ring We Now of Christmas

By Gerry Halley  |  2017-12-06

Bel Tempo, a community handbell choir

Sacramento Region, CA (MPG) - Silver Bells, Silver Bells, its Christmas time in the city.  Actually the bells of the Bel Tempo Handbell Choir are Gold, and the sound is Golden!  The holiday season is a special time of year of wonder and excitement.  It's also a time to reach out and help others who are less fortunate. This year on Sunday, December 17, at 4 p.m., 3235 Pope Avenue, you are invited to help others while enjoying an afternoon of holiday music from around the world with Bel Tempo, a community handbell choir sponsored by Northminster Presbyterian Church. The concert has become a holiday tradition for music lovers of all ages. In addition to handbell music, Bel Tempo will be joined by soloists on violin, marimba, English horn and a variety of percussion instruments.  Audience members will have a chance to try their skills with hand chimes and join in carol sing-a-longs.

This year's concert, “Ring We Now of Christmas,” is a benefit for Family Promise of Sacramento.  Family Promise helps displaced families renew their dreams and re-start their journey towards independence. Permanent housing is the ultimate goal, along with developing the self-sufficiency needed so that homelessness is less likely to reoccur.  Family Promise partners, with over two dozen, host and support congregations.  During the day, the Family Promise Day Center, located in the Loaves & Fishes complex, provides a safe and secure haven for families.  Each evening, Family Promise transports the families to the host congregation for that week and then transports the families back to the Day Center each morning.

The afternoon of music is free.  A freewill offering will be accepted to benefit Family Promise.  For more information, call (916) 487-5192 or go to northminsteronline.org.

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Save for Retirement Now, Get a Tax Credit Later

WASHINGTON, DC - The Internal Revenue Service reminds low- and moderate-income workers to plan now to earn a credit on their 2017 tax return. A special tax break can help people with modest incomes save for retirement. It’s called the Saver’s Credit and it could mean up to a 50 percent credit for the first $2,000 a taxpayer contributes to a retirement plan.

Also known as the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, the Saver’s Credit helps offset part of the amount workers voluntarily contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA, a 401(k) or 403 (b) plan, and similar workplace retirement programs.

Taxpayers with an IRA have until April 17, 2018, (the due date of their 2017 tax return) to contribute to the plan and still have it qualify for 2017. However, contributions (elective deferrals) to an employer-sponsored plan must be made by the end of the year to qualify for the credit. Employees who are unable to set aside money for this year may want to schedule their 2018 contributions soon so their employer can begin withholding in January.

The Saver’s Credit can be claimed by:

  • Married couples filing jointly with incomes up to $62,000 in 2017 or $63,000 in 2018
  • Heads of Household with incomes up to $46,500 in 2017 or $47,250 for 2018
  • Singles and married individuals filing separately with incomes up to $31,000 in 2017 or $31,500 in 2018

To qualify for the credit, a person must be:

  • Age 18 or older
  • Not a full-time student
  • Not claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return

Like other tax credits, the Saver’s Credit can increase a taxpayer’s refund or reduce the amount of tax owed. Though the maximum Saver’s Credit is $1,000 ($2,000 for married couples), the IRS cautioned that it is often much less and may be zero for some taxpayers.

The amount of the credit is based on filing status, income, overall tax liability and the amount contributed to a qualifying retirement plan. It may also be impacted by other credits and deductions or reduced by any recent distributions from a retirement plan.

To claim the Saver’s Credit, taxpayers must complete Form 8880 and attach it to their tax return. Form 8880 cannot be used with Form 1040EZ.

In tax year 2015, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, Saver’s Credits totaling nearly $1.4 billion were claimed on more than 8.1 million individual income tax returns.

The Saver’s Credit can also add to other tax benefits available to people who contribute to their retirement; for example, most workers can also deduct contributions to a traditional IRA.

Source: IRS Media

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SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - The California Highway Patrol (CHP) joins the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) in recognizing December 4-8, 2017, as Older Driver Safety Awareness Week.

According to the AOTA, with increasing age come changes in physical, mental and sensory abilities that can challenge a person’s continued ability to drive safely.  Family and friends have a major role in identifying changes in driving behavior and beginning discussions about older driver safety.  It is important to start these conversations early and discuss any needed changes in driving habits before it becomes a problem, allowing older drivers to be actively involved in the planning. 

“Most drivers want to continue driving for as long as possible and maintain their independence,” CHP Acting Commissioner Warren Stanley said.  “Family and friends play an important, but often difficult role, in discussing how long it is safe to continue driving.”

Data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles shows drivers age 65 and older made up approximately 15 percent of the licensed drivers in California in 2016.  Last year, more than 5,100 fatal collisions were recorded in California.  Preliminary data from the CHP’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System indicates drivers age 65 and older were involved in 10.7 percent of the fatal collisions and 8.3 percent of the injury collisions in California in 2016. 

As part of our efforts to help California’s seniors drive safely for as long as they can, the CHP offers a free, two-hour Age Well, Drive Smart course.  Through this program, seniors can sharpen their driving skills, refresh their knowledge of the rules of the road, and learn how to adjust to normal age-related physical and mental changes.  The CHP North Sacramento Area office will hold a free class at the First Baptist Church of Fair Oaks located at 4401 San Juan Ave, Fair Oaks, CA. Class size is limited so it is encouraged that all who plan on attending RSVP.

Persons interested in signing up for the class will need to register for the class by emailing Officer Chad Hertzell at chertzell@chp.ca.gov or by sending a private message to our Facebook account at Facebook.com/chpnorthsac or calling him at 916-348-2317.

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Nearly 90 percent of older drivers do not make inexpensive adaptations to their vehicles that can improve safety and extend their time behind the wheel, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Common vehicle adaptations like pedal extensions, seat cushions and steering wheel covers can help to improve safety by reducing a senior driver’s crash risk. Seniors aged 65 and over are more than twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed when involved in a crash.

“While many seniors are safe drivers, they are also the most vulnerable,” said Michael Blasky, spokesman for AAA Northern California. “We urge seniors to consider making the necessary adaptations to their vehicles in order to reduce crash risk and extend the time they can continue to drive. Simple, inexpensive features can greatly improve their safety and the safety of those they share the road with.”

The research brief, In-Vehicle Technologies, Vehicle Adaptations, and Older Drivers: Use, Learning, and Perceptions is the first phase in the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s groundbreaking Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project.

For this phase of the study, researchers investigated 12 vehicle adaptations and found that fewer than nine percent of senior drivers reported using any of the devices in their vehicles. Some of the inexpensive devices that can be purchased and put to use in new or existing vehicles are: Cushions and seat pads can improve line of sight and can help alleviate back or hip pain; Convex/ multifaceted mirrors can improve visibility and minimizes blind spots; Pedal extension can help drivers obtain a safe distance from the steering wheel/airbag and optimize visibility; Steering wheel covers can improve grip for drivers with arthritic hand joints; Hand controls can help the driver to perform all vehicle maneuvers and functions without the use of lower extremities.

Choosing the right features and working with a trained technician is imperative to safety behind the wheel. Of those drivers who have a device, almost 90 percent reported that they did not work with a trained professional to install the modification, a key recommendation by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). AAA urges drivers to consult with a trained technician to guide them in making adjustments to their vehicle.

Vehicle adaptions also benefit seniors’ mental health by extending their time on the road. Previous research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that seniors who have stopped driving are almost two times more likely to suffer from depression and nearly five times more likely to enter a long-term care facility than those who remain behind the wheel.

“Knowledge is power when it comes to extending time behind the wheel, and AAA is committed to providing seniors with the information they need to make sound decisions,” Blasky said.

AAA is promoting the report in partnership with the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) to support Older Driver Safety Awareness Week. AAA and AOTA worked in collaboration with the American Society on Aging and AARP to develop CarFit to help senior drivers better utilize the features and technologies in their vehicles. AAA also offers the Smart Features for Older Drivers tool, which can help senior drivers identify in-expensive devices and vehicle features that optimize their comfort and safety.

About LongROAD: Recognizing that lifestyle changes, along with innovative technologies and medical advancements will have a significant impact on the driving experiences of the baby boomer generation, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has launched a ground-breaking, multi-year research program to more fully understand the driving patterns and trends of older drivers in the United States. The LongROAD (Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers) study is the largest and most comprehensive senior driver database on senior drivers incorporating 2,990 participants. It will support in-depth studies of senior driving and mobility to better understand risks and develop effective countermeasures.

Established in 1947 by AAA, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a not-for-profit, publicly funded, 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization. The AAA Foundation’s mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by conducting research into their causes and by educating the public about strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research is used to develop educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users. Visit www.AAAFoundation.org.

AAA has been a leader and advocate for the safety and security of all travelers since it was founded more than 100 years ago. Visit AAA.com.

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Sacramento Region, CA (MPG) - Two of the three leading credit agencies have raised their assessment of SMUD’s credit worthiness. Fitch and S&P upgraded SMUD’s credit ratings to AA, from AA-. Meanwhile, SMUD’s credit worthiness continues to be rated Aa3 by Moody’s. This is the strongest SMUD’s credit ratings have been in 33 years.

The agencies cited improved finances, sound operating fundamentals, competitive rates and a diverse energy portfolio among the many reasons they raised their assessment of SMUD’s credit worthiness.

Exceeding financial goals helps SMUD maintain solid credit ratings and provides for lower interest rates when SMUD borrows. The upgrades are expected to save three basis points (0.03%) on SMUD’s upcoming bond transaction, which is worth $350,000 net value over the term of the debt.  Additionally, SMUD will continue to pay lower interest rates every time the electric utility issues debt in the future.

According to Fitch: “The rating upgrade reflects the district's strong and sustainable financial performance, moderate leverage with manageable capital needs, and management's proactive plans to comply with environmental mandates and adapt to a rapidly evolving industry.”

S&P noted: “We have assigned SMUD a business profile score of '3' on a 10-point scale, with '1' being the highest, reflecting our view of SMUD's competitive electric rates, diverse and coal-free resource portfolio, strong financial management, and stable and diverse service territory.”

As the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric service provider, SMUD has been providing low-cost, reliable electricity for 70 years to Sacramento County (and small adjoining portions of Placer and Yolo Counties). SMUD is a recognized industry leader and award winner for its innovative energy efficiency programs, renewable power technologies, and for its sustainable solutions for a healthier environment. SMUD’s power mix is about 50 percent non-carbon emitting. For more information, visitsmud.org.

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The Greatest Story Ever Told

By Margaret Snider  |  2017-12-01

“There is something special about having the opportunity to be part of the greatest story ever told,” King said.  All photos by Mark Spicer

The Live Nativity - Everything Leads to the Stable

Rancho Cordova, CA (MPG) - The Live Nativity is much more than a creche with real people in it.  With a cast of 70 each night, the outdoor presentation takes visitors through the story of the Nativity, past shepherds watching their flocks and the three kings searching for the child, into the city of Bethlehem.  Choirs of angels sing, and recorded narration accompanies the action.  “All aspects of this event, from the traffic flow, to the movement of the cast, have been designed with one purpose in mind:  everything leads to the stable,” said Kristen King, creative director for the event. 

Production assistant Ashley Wagstaff said that her favorite part is knowing that they have live babies in the Nativity. Wagstaff and the “baby liaison” recruit six babies who will be between the ages of 6 and 10 weeks at the time of the performances.  Each night three of the babies are present with their moms, waiting to be chosen for the entrance as the baby Jesus, one for each of the five performances.  “Whichever baby is happy, and set, and sleeping, that’s who goes on next,” Wagstaff said.  “What I love is when they finally realize that it’s a real baby, you hear little kids say, ‘Baby Jesus is real!’” 

Brent Horrocks and 12-year-old son Craig are shepherds in the cast this year.  Each Christmas he and his family read the Bible story and re-enact the Nativity at home just for themselves, with homemade costumes.  “We know the story, but seeing it in a large scale production like this with professional costumes and lighting and cast,” Horrocks said, “it really brings home to you what a wonderful event it was.” 

The Folsom California Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will present five performances each night for four nights, starting every half hour from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., December 7-10.  Reservations are recommended, but not required.  The location is 2100 California Circle, Rancho Cordova, which is across Folsom Boulevard from the Folsom Auto Mall.  Turn onto Birkmont Drive and follow signs to the parking for the Live Nativity. 

“There is something special about having the opportunity to be part of the greatest story ever told,” King said.  “. . . Sometimes the commercialism of the holiday overruns Christmas itself.  This event, in its beautiful setting, provides those much-needed moments to reflect on what is most important – the birth of Jesus Christ.

An average of 6,500 visitors attended the event each year in the two years since it began.  Admission is free. 

For more information and to make reservations, go to www.LiveNativity.org.  Plenty of parking is available and the Live Nativity is wheelchair accessible.

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Music is Universal and So is Learning

Story by Jacqueline Fox  |  2017-12-01

For more information about upcoming concerts, to donate used guitars or 
details on workshops:  www.sacramentoguitarsociety.org. Photo by Sacramento Preparatory Musical Academy

Sacramento County, CA (MPG) - Can teaching someone how to play the guitar deliver on the promise of overcoming socio-economic challenges?

Absolutely, says Lili Williams, president of Sacramento Guitar Society (SGS), which has, somewhat under the radar, been promoting and celebrating the art of the guitar for decades through its community classes, workshops, youth scholarships, public performances, and even onsite classes for prison inmates.

Originally founded in 1961 as a small group for guitar enthusiasts in the Bay Area, SGS has evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit dedicated to providing free and low-cost classical guitar workshops and performance opportunities to youth and adults from across a broad spectrum of cultural and economic backgrounds.

Guitar classes and performance opportunities are available to players of varying ages, abilities and backgrounds, Williams said, however, the focus of SGS’ community classes is moving more exclusively in the direction helping underserved youth and students in schools where funding for the arts is lacking.

“A lot of kids in the community have never been exposed to the art of classical guitar, or say a flamenco guitar performance,” said Williams, a former Intel engineer who came out of retirement to raise funds for SGS before becoming its president.  “Our purpose is to give youth of all abilities an outlet through classes and performance opportunities on the guitar, and we are deeply focused today on at risk and disadvantaged kids.”

Through its educational outreach programs in schools, community spaces and, most recently, two newly secured partnerships with the Carmichael and Rancho Cordova parks and recreation programs, SGS is working to expand its reach deep into the communities where access to musical education and instruction are needed most. 

Previously, SGS raised funds for outside organizations with similar missions, primarily the Sacramento Preparatory Musical Academy, which served to extend the SGS mission through its own workshops and performances.  Now, SGS, which currently runs on a $48,000 operating budget, is shifting its funding toward its own programs, primarily the new parks and recreation partnerships, as well as plans for extending services to targeted youth living in foster homes across Sacramento County.

“For the last few years we’ve been raising funds through grants for the Sacramento Preparatory Academy’s efforts,” Williams said.  “Now our focus will be on redirecting funds from our grantors and supporters back to our own agency in order to expand our own programs,” Williams said.

SGS students do not need to have any guitar skills.  They are given a safe, professional space in which to learn to play the guitar.  They learn to read chords and notes, finger pick and strum, and how to properly position the guitar in classical styles.

“Music is universal and so is learning,” said Williams.  “But not every kid out there has access to both of those things.  For many disadvantage youth, exposure to something like the history of classical guitar and how to play an instrument seems way out of reach.  So we are here to help change that.”

In addition to classes for youth, the SGS Community Orchestra, comprised of members of all ages, offers community concerts throughout the year, including its upcoming Winter Concert, slated for December 17 at The CLARA (E. Clare Raley Studios for the Performing Arts) in midtown.  Monthly rehearsals for the orchestra are also held at The CLARA and invitations to join are open to players ranging 10 and up, Williams said.

The “The SGS community orchestra is an amazing part of our agency,” said Williams.  “You’ll not only be treated to a concert of ensemble players if you come to one of its performances, you’ll see players from middle school on stage playing side-by-side with adults.  It’s truly a wonderful event and experience.”

SGS also supports music programs in the San Juan Unified School District by holding in-class performances by featured artists, including SGS teachers.  Also, SGS accepts donations of used acoustic guitars, which are restored, tuned-up and given to schools and music academies in need.

“A big part of our program is making sure that music programs in the schools across the districts that do not have the funds to purchase new guitars for their students get guitars,” Williams said.

Other community performances help support SGS programming.  In February, SGS will hold its annual Young Artists Showcase Concert featuring talented young artists from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division and Yuri Liberzon’s Los Altos Studio.  The 2018 spring concert lineup includes An Evening with Alex De Grassi & Andrew York at the Harris Center in March, and Eleftheria Kotzia from Greece at The Sophia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts in April.

As a nonprofit, SGS relies on membership fees, concert ticket sales and the generosity of its corporate and individual donors.  Over the next decade, Williams said, SGS will be pushing to expand its operating budget to $1 million—a tall order, perhaps, but, says Williams, when you are driven by passion, everything is possible.

“It’s because of my passion for kids who are low-income or struggling in some way that I want to grow this program into one that brings our underserved youth more opportunities to gain exposure to music and learn to play the guitar,” she said.  “We want to reach the ones out there in our communities that don’t have those opportunities and see to it that they get there.”

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