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Mayor announces tax initiative for November ballot and immediately hears council skeptics

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand announced on Monday, June 25 that he will propose to the city council putting a half-cent sales tax initiative on the November ballot to fund public safety and parks.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand announced on Monday, June 25 that he will propose to the city council putting a half-cent sales tax initiative on the November ballot to fund public safety and parks. bcalix@fresnobee.com

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand will need to rally support from the City Council if he wants to see a public safety and parks sales tax measure on the November ballot.

In a news conference in front of City Hall, Brand announced on Monday a major tax initiative that would fund additional staffing for the city's police and fire departments, plus park facilities and programs. But within hours of the announcement, two council members said they won't support it and two others said "at this time" they weren't supportive.

The mayor needs five yes votes from the seven-member council in order to get the measure on the ballot. Two-thirds of November voters would need to be in favor of the tax for it to pass.

The proposal, a half-cent sales tax for 15 years that would raise $44 million to $50 million annually, is unrelated to the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative, another proposal offered by a coalition of citizens, community leaders and nonprofit organizations.

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The Fresno for Parks initiative organizers are seeking enough signatures from the community to put on the ballot a three-eighths-cent sales tax that would raise about $37.5 million annually over 30 years.

Brand said half the money from his proposal would be used to staff up the police and fire departments and the other half would be used to carry out the parks master plan, which calls for ongoing and deferred maintenance of existing parks, new parks and programs for youth and senior citizens.

Councilmen Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier told The Bee they will not support Brand's proposal.

Brandau, who represents District 2, said he's sticking to his Tea Party roots: "We are taxed enough already."

Olivier, the District 7 councilman who is termed out for re-election, echoed those sentiments, saying the goals of the tax measure are "worthy," but he believes the resources already exist to adequately fund city services.

The mayor said time is ticking for any sort of sales tax initiative that would bring money to the city's coffers, noting currently the city's revenue is not enough to provide outstanding city services. He also said voting to put his proposal on the ballot isn't supporting raising taxes. "It's simply saying the voters should have the opportunity to vote and debate. Let's let them make the choice," he said.

"This is an opportunity for Fresno to finally step up and not be the city of low expectations," Brand said.

Both Fire Chief Kerri Donis and Police Chief Jerry Dyer spoke at Brand's news conference in support of the tax measure. Donis said likely no other metropolitan fire department in the country works with the kind of low staffing Fresno Fire Department has. She said staffing levels are the same as what they were in 1985, despite population growth and an increase in call volume.

Dyer also spoke about losing hundreds of officers and civilian staff during the recession and the slow response to 911 calls due to low dispatch staffing.

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Representatives from both the fire and police unions attended the news conference in support of Brand's proposal.

Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1, and District 3 Councilman Oliver Baines said as of Monday, they won't support the tax measure.

District 5 Councilman Luis Chavez and District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld remain undecided. Bredefeld noted he typically doesn't support raising taxes, but "terrible" propositions put forward by Sacramento politicians resulted in an unsafe city. He will meet with constituents in coming days before deciding how to vote.

Paul Caprioglio, who represents District 4, did not respond to a request for comment.

During city budget hearings this month, Soria supported "exploring" adding community service officers and dispatchers to the police departments as funds became available. She also supported looking for money halfway through the fiscal year to add three captain safety officer positions to the fire department.

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Baines said he'd like to see the mayor collaborate with the Fresno for Parks initiative. If the mayor's proposal doesn't receive council support, Baines doesn't think that the issue will be dead.

"I think the mayor is doing a fantastic job in recognizing the fact that our city needs an injection in the arm around two very important issues," he said. But the mayor's effort doesn't quite fulfill the Fresno for Parks vision for parks in the city, which Baines supports.

Larry Powell, co-chair of the Fresno for Parks campaign, said he's willing to negotiate with the mayor so there won't be competing sales tax initiatives on the ballot. "We're not going to shut any doors," he said. "We're going to continue to be open and see where we might go."

However, the mayor said Monday afternoon his proposal already is a compromise. Borrowing from Mick Jagger, Brand said his proposal might not give the Fresno for Parks supporters what they want, but they might find it gives them what they need.

"The way we designed the ballot measure is a way to give a lot of flexibility," he said. "If you bind yourself too tight, I believe you're not going to be as effective."

That flexibility will give the council more options when they make spending decisions as well, he said.

The mayor also pointed to polls that he said show his proposal would gain support in November, but competing proposals will result in both initiatives failing.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix
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