Is it really America’s worst city? Mendota leaders dispute report’s labeling

From its problems with the notorious street gang MS-13 to its deep levels of poverty, Mendota now has another negative tagged to its reputation.

The Fresno County agricultural town of 11,396 this week ranked at the top of a list of the 50 worst cities to live in the country — a conclusion disputed Friday by city leaders.

The city earned the titled based on its poverty rate, crime rate, median home values and residents’ educational attainment.

The list was put together by website 24/7 Wall St.and used data from the 2017 US. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, plus violent and property crime rates from the FBI’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report.

Additionally, it used 2014 cost of living data from ATTOM Data Solutions.

Mendota isn’t the only Central Valley city on the list. Firebaugh placed on the 21st spot, Orange Cove took the 48th spot and Corcoran earned the 30th spot.

According to the list, Mendota had a poverty rate of 49.5 percent. The median home value was $139,000, and only 1.8 percent of its adult residents have a bachelor’s degree.

Half of the households earn less than $27,000 a year, putting nearly half of its population below the poverty line.

Mendota Mayor Robert Silva said the ranking doesn’t paint reality.

While he acknowledged the city has had its tough times, for example, during the drought years and when it had problems with the MS-13 gang, Silva said the town has turned a corner in the right direction.

Last summer, local and federal law enforcement carried out an operation against MS-13 after a decade of its presence in the community.

“Things have changed,” he said. “We are moving ahead in a lot of things.”

Mendota residents are not leaving, he said, and more houses are being built in the community. “What does that tell you?” he asked. “They see that things are prospering. Things are getting better.”

Mendota’s Pro Tem Mayor Rolando Castro also disagreed with the city’s labeling. “I live here,” he said. “If it were that bad, I would have left. I make a living here.”

Compared to the neighboring towns, Castro said, Mentoda has seen more economic development gains. “We don’t know why we are the ones being picked on,” he said.

Castro said the town had issues with MS-13, but the issue is being dealt with, and the youth are doing “really good.” In terms of poverty, Castro said, there are teenagers in high school driving new cars.

Many of the city’s high school graduates seek higher education at trade schools or community colleges, Castro said. People don’t need to attend a four-year college to make a good living, he said.

“I make a pretty good living because I went through a vocational program,” he said. “I have two businesses.”

Castro said he has been working with newly-elected Rep. TJ Cox, D-Mendota, to bring more resources to the community.

“We need to give them an opportunity as well,” he said.

Mendota longtime resident Joseph Riofrio, who served many years as an elected official in the town, also said the ranking is unfair.

“It’s not fair because we are an agricultural-based community,” he said. “The hardest work imaginable is the lowest paid. They are just not paid enough for the type of work they are doing.”

Plus, people are being priced out of the Bay Area because they cant afford housing there, while Mendota has “brand new homes” that people can afford. “People are moving,” he said. “They are coming this way.”

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors, he said, should be outraged by this ranking, and should say they “value our farming communities and what they provide.”

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro

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Yesenia Amaro covers immigration and diverse communities for The Fresno Bee. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada. She recently received the 2018 Journalistic Integrity award from the CACJ. In 2015, she won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year Award from the Nevada Press Association, and also received the Community Service Award.