Fresno City Council sends parks sales tax initiative to November ballot

Park tax measure passes Fresno City Council unanimously

A park tax measure passed unanimously by Fresno City Council though some councilmembers said they would not vote for it in the election.
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A park tax measure passed unanimously by Fresno City Council though some councilmembers said they would not vote for it in the election.

The Fresno City Council voted unanimously Thursday to send the Fresno for Parks initiative to voters on the November ballot, despite three council members voicing strong opposition to the measure.

The council heard from dozens of speakers urging them to allow voters to decide on the three-eighths-cent sales tax that will raise $37.5 million per year over 30 years for clean and safe parks, as well as arts. Supporters voiced how Fresno’s severe lack of parks and green space has held the city back over the years. The measure proposes putting in action the city of Fresno’s parks master plan.

Measure P proponents stand up in support of the parks tax as the Fresno City Council voted to place the citizen-driven initiative on the November ballot during an August 2018 council meeting. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The sales tax initiative would raise money that will help “keep young people from riding in the back of (Fresno Police) Chief Dyer’s squad cars,” said Paul Gibson, previous owner of Guarantee Real Estate who also sits on the San Joaquin River Conservancy board.

Supporters gathered 35,000 signatures to qualify the initiative, and Thursday’s City Council vote confirmed it for the ballot.

Juan Arambula, former state assemblyman and co-chair of Fresno for Parks, said the council in its vote heard the voices of 35,000 Fresnans.

“Fortunately, the public came through,” he said. “A lot of folks had been interested in parks over the years, and when they saw an opportunity, they jumped in with both feet.”

Juan Arambula speaks out in support of parks the day the Fresno City Council met to discuss and vote on the agenda’s parks tax Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Arambula noted the success came after hurdles. Initially, the effort relied on outside petition gatherers who became busier with better-paying efforts in other parts of the state. So Fresno for Parks leaders turned to citizen volunteers to gather signatures.

“They’re the ones that took us over line,” he said.

The effort’s success also came into question when Mayor Lee Brand announced a competing proposal for a tax initiative for public safety and parks. But he quickly killed the proposal after city council members said they didn’t support his plan. Fresno for Parks leaders hoped to earn the mayor’s support through negotiations, but he stood firm in his belief that a split public safety and parks initiative would earn voter approval.

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Councilmen Steve Brandau, Garry Bredefeld and Clint Olivier applauded parks supporters for their work, but they each said they won’t support the measure in November.

Brandau, whose background includes the anti-tax Tea Party, said he sees merit in the measure but believes it’s simply too much money. “It gives me heartburn,” he said.

Olivier said the tax will hurt further hurt the poor. Bredefeld said the city needs to prioritize funding for public safety and California residents already are overtaxed.

Arte Americas board president Vivian Velasco Paz carries her daughter Gabriela Paz, 2, after speaking in support of parks to the Fresno City Council Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Council President Esmeralda Soria pointed out that other cities near Fresno, like Madera, Clovis, and even Huron, have a higher tax rate than Fresno and recognize the value of investing in parks.

Elliott Balch, the chief operating officer of the Central Valley Community Foundation, noted that a majority of the signatures came from north Fresno council districts. About 18 percent of signatures came from District 6, the northeast Fresno district represented by Bredefeld. Brandau’s northwest District 2 also accounted for about 18 percent of the signatures.

Councilman Oliver Baines, who represents District 3, said watching and learning about the tax measure effort “moved” him. “Your vision is grand, it’s big, it’s bold.”