Parks vs. affordable housing: City Council wonders why Fresno can’t have both

Fresno City Council members had sharp words Thursday for the city administration and staff when weighing how federal dollars will be used to support city parks versus affordable housing for seniors.

The discussion came during a public hearing at Thursday’s council meeting on city staff’s recommendation for spending Community Development Block Grant funding.

The funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allows local governments to address needs in vulnerable and urban communities, such as libraries, sidewalks, after school programs and other priorities.

Staff proposed redirecting about $750,000 in CDBG funds from park projects in southwest Fresno to a senior housing development in the southeast Fancher Creek area. In total, staff is recommending $2.25 million in CDBG funds for the senior housing development.

The council will vote on the item during its Feb. 28 meeting.

But council members questioned why the money was redirected from parks projects, saying they were unaware of those developments until recently.

“It’s tough to have a discussion when you have two great issues and great projects pitted against each other,” District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria said.

District 3 Council Member Miguel Arias raised concerns about specific projects, including improvements to Dickey’s playground, a splash park at Fink-White and upgrades at Jaswant Singh Khalra Park, formerly known as Victoria West Park.

Arias said he and council members Soria and Paul Caprioglio met with city staff at the end of January to figure out why the money was redirected and the scope of each park project that was delayed. As of Thursday’s meeting, he still didn’t know the answer.

Those park projects that received 2018 CDBG funding were behind in different processes, such as environmental reviews and bidding for contractors, said Kelli Furtado, assistant director in the city’s development and resource management (DARM) department. Plus, the city didn’t receive the 2018 funding until October.

Earlier this week, the Housing and Community Development Commission voted in a meeting to recommend the proposal to the City Council. Furtado said the commission did not come to its decision quickly, and the vote was split.

The council in its last meeting approved $1 million in spending for parks – spending originally proposed by the council in its 2018-19 budget.

Council members expressed concern Thursday that weeks after they approved additional spending for priority projects in the Parks, Recreation, Afterschool and Community Services (PARCS) Department, the $750,000 previously designated for parks was redirected.

“The council seems to be taking one step forward, and the administration takes us one step back,” Arias said.

“It leads me to believe that we have to ask the basic question: Does the administration really not want to maintain our parks? Does the administration not really understand what poorly maintained, broken parks do to a neighborhood? Or do they simply not care?”

Soria said she voted for the senior housing project, but not under the impression money would be taken from parks.

Mayor Lee Brand sent a statement to The Bee, saying it was ridiculous to say the administration doesn’t care about parks when park spending is up in the city budget.

“It is beyond ridiculous to claim that my Administration doesn’t care about parks,” Brand said. “During my two years in office, we’ve increased parks funding by 39 percent, from $21.2 million in fiscal year 2017 to $25.8 million in fiscal year 2018 and to $29.5 million in fiscal year 2019. That’s an increase of nearly $13 million over two years.

“We are also in the process of finalizing our Proposition 68 grant applications with the state which we hope will bring millions more to our parks system to continue improving facilities and adding programming,” he said.

City Manager Wilma Quan pointed out that it took the council eight months to approve projects for the $1 million parks allocation.

Luis Chavez, District 5 council member, suggested a solution to fully fund the three parks projects in question, as well as the housing development, by shuffling funding for other projects.

“I don’t even want the perception to exist that this body up here does not value and support southwest Fresno or District 3,” he said. “I think we’ve shown a step in the right direction…That community has historically been left behind. …We’ve got a ways to go.”

Furtado told the council by the end of the day she’d amend the proposal to include Chavez’s suggestion.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix

Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.