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Fresno mayor kills tax plan aimed at improving police, fire staffing and park facilities

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer responds to withdrawal of tax plan measure

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand killed the plan to add a public safety and parks sales tax measure on the November ballot.
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Fresno Mayor Lee Brand killed the plan to add a public safety and parks sales tax measure on the November ballot.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand on Thursday morning abandoned his plan to add a public safety and parks sales tax measure on the November ballot.

"It is with a mixture of both regret and hope that I am announcing the withdrawal of the parks and public safety ballot measure I introduced to Council," Brand said in a news release.

On Monday Brand announced the major initiative that would fund additional staffing for the city's police and fire departments, plus park facilities and programs.

But it was clear from the start that the plan faced opposition from the City Council. By Tuesday, five council members said they would not support putting the tax initiative on the ballot. They were: Council President Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1; District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau; District 3 Councilman Oliver Baines; District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld; and District 7 Councilman Clint Olivier.

Brand said Thursday he realizes the proposal was a "bold" move and a "bridge."

"But it was a bridge too far," he said.

It became clear to him hours after his Monday news conference that it wouldn't be an easy sell, he said. The social media response also was "instantaneous."

The mayor said he won't cast judgment on the council members for not supporting his plan. Next year there will be two new people on the council and the dynamics will be different, he added.

"This is an ongoing story," he said. "I can't do everything for everyone."

Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fire Chief Kerri Donis expressed their disappointment that the initiative would not be on the ballot. Both said it is the citizens of Fresno who will suffer most from the council's lack of support for the tax measure.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand killed the plan to add a public safety and parks sales tax measure on the November ballot.

The chiefs say their departments each struggle to meet demand for services with low staffing levels. Dyer said the police department still is smaller than pre-recession numbers in 2009, and Donis said the fire department is operating at staff levels similar to those in 1985, despite major population growth and an increase in call volume.

"Quite frankly, the message we’re sending is that we’re content with the status quo," Donis said.

"We're going to have to continue to do more with less and, quite frankly, do less with less," Dyer said.

Fresno Police Officers' Association President Damon Kurtz penned a fiery letter to council members Wednesday asking them to step up and stop blaming Sacramento politics for the city of Fresno's challenges.

"How many of you have ventured out of your comfort zone of the Central Valley and your Facebook followers to try and affect change in this state and in Fresno for the better?" he said. "Unfortunately, no one is willing to put themselves out there to make the tough decisions that may not be popular based on which political ideology you belong to. It seems that everyone in office is more focused on the next political office or consulting job rather than what's best for Fresno."

After learning of the mayor's decision Thursday morning, Kurtz told The Bee, "I wish I could say I'm surprised." The union is not pro-tax, but it is pro-business and pro-Fresno, he said.

"These are the days and reasons our members don't like politics," he said. "Typically in life, people are friends when it's convenient for them. But when it comes to pushback or adversity, they tend to shy away and you find out who your real friends are."

Kurtz said his board and members likely will remember the council's lack of support in the future when they make endorsement decisions.

The Fresno City Firefighters union leaders said it was rare to see so many players come together to support the mayor's initiative.

"There's been a discussion in the city for some sort of public safety tax for a number of years," said James Scoggins, vice president of the firefighter union. "We were excited for the mayor's brave voice to push this forward."

So it was disappointing to the firefighters as well that the council didn't support the initiative. "We weren't asking the council to influence voters," said Dean Sanders, the union president. "We were asking them to send the tax to the voters because we wanted the citizens of Fresno to have that opportunity."

The mayor's plan was unrelated to the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative, another proposal offered by a coalition of citizens, community leaders and nonprofit organizations. 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.

Though Brand's plan is dead, he still won't support the Fresno for Parks effort, he said, because he feels the need is greater to boost public safety.

"We are grateful to the mayor for bringing our city's needs to the public’s attention," said Juan Arambula, former state Assembly member and co-chair of Fresno for Parks. "We share a lot of common ground and are committed to working with the city and all community stakeholders to support a measure that is worthy of the voters’ consideration and that benefits all of Fresno."

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