Politics & Government

Voters to decide on extra patrols

A tiny election in Fresno's stately Fig Garden area is generating some intense politicking over an issue of public safety.

The question -- whether to expand the Fig Garden Police Protection District and charge newcomers for additional sheriff's deputy patrols -- affects fewer than 1,000 voters.

But it has spawned a special election, ballot arguments laced with exclamation points and bold letters, a series of informational meetings, mailers and leaflets, a former sheriff's endorsement and a Web site dedicated to the measure's defeat.

The level of campaigning seems unusual for such a small contest, said Jeff Cummins, an assistant professor of political science at Fresno State. But, he added: "People have a vested interest in public safety."

The Fresno County elections office mailed ballots last week. Voters have until Oct. 23 to return them.

The election's estimated cost to the district: $10,000 to $15,000.

Supporters of the measure say they're responding to requests by neighbors who want to join the roughly 1-square-mile district. It sits in an unincorporated area within Fresno, where a single deputy per shift patrols Fig Garden and other county islands within a 34-square-mile area.

For about $384,000 annually, the 57-year-old district contracts for additional service from the Sheriff's Department. A special assessment -- $299 annually for a single-family home -- covers most of the cost of an extra patrol averaging 15 to 16 hours daily.

According to the elections office, about 750 voters are eligible to cast ballots in three separate geographic areas roughly south and east of the existing district. A two-thirds majority is required for the measure to pass.

The idea of expanding the district has simmered for years. In 2006, an election was called off by the district about six weeks before ballots would have been cast. District officials said they simply needed more time.

Today, the political debate divides mainly along the lines of money, service and need. Supporters say the extra patrol would offer an average two-minute response, preventive policing that discourages wrongdoing and cheap insurance against rising crime and county budget cuts.

The endorsement of former Sheriff Hal McKinney -- who once lived in the Fig Garden area but doesn't now -- is featured in ballot arguments. He said: "They get the best law enforcement in the world because it is specifically for that area."

The Fig Garden Homeowners Association also supports the annexation and assessment. President Louise Yenovkian called old Fig "one of the safest neighborhoods" in the county, and said the measure would help maintain that for generations.

Merilee Amos, who wants to be annexed into the district, has campaigned for votes. She has helped host informational meetings and distribute literature.

Amos said crime is higher in some neighborhoods outside the district compared to areas within the district.

"We need to feel that we are safe in our homes, safe in our neighborhoods," she said. "We have an opportunity to ensure that. We think that is extremely valuable and an opportunity not to be missed."

But opponents say they're satisfied with the good service the Sheriff's Department already provides and concerned about a tax with no sunset date.

In part, they also accuse the district of trying to solve its financial problems by expanding.

(District officials acknowledge there is an economic incentive in expanding, but say that isn't the driving force for the election.)

William Reynolds, who lives in one of the proposed annexation areas, said he only has needed the sheriff once in the 42 years he has lived there. He also expressed concern over a system of "haves and have-nots" -- those who can afford extra patrols, and those who can't.

Barbara Dyer, who signed opposition ballot arguments, said the low-crime area doesn't need any more policing. She said the district mainly wants to bring in more households to spread the cost of the patrols.

Dyer is part of a grassroots effort battling against the measure. She has met some strong reactions from voters on both sides.

Dyer said she has been told to leave some residents' doorsteps and take her "trashy papers" with her. Others advised her to make the "No" in campaign literature bigger and bolder.

The campaign hasn't eased yet. Last week, both pro and con factions papered neighborhoods with leaflets and mailers.