Fresno voters will decide on a sales tax hike to benefit local parks on Nov. 6
A few years back, Efrain Botello was playing soccer at Al Radka Park in southeast Fresno when he twisted his ankle on the field, which at the time was an uneven dirt pitch with holes and patches of dead grass.
“I was kind of used to the fields,” he said. “We all know, as soccer players, that those fields are in bad condition.”
The injury kept Botello, who at the time was recently graduated from Roosevelt High, off the field for months as he walked with crutches.
Botello, now 21, started going to public parks in Fresno to play soccer when he was 8. Other young men in Fresno Building Healthy Community’s Boys and Men of Color group shared his critique of the city’s parks. Some expressed frustration about taking three buses to get to the nearest skate park. Others said their parents didn’t allow them to take their younger siblings to their neighborhood park because it was unsafe.
Sandra Celedon, president and CEO of Fresno BHC, said the young people took her group to task. Fresno BHC already was peeling back the layers of Fresno’s general plan update and looking for policy to tackle. Did the community agree parks was the place to start?
Teens circulated a survey to 350 other young people asking about parks. The response was clear, Celedon said.
“Young people were saying the same thing: ‘Yes, we want to have parks in our neighborhood. I want to be able to walk or bike to my park, and I want a park that has recreational activities happening and is safe with adequate lighting and functioning restrooms and a functioning playground.’”
“That really sealed the deal for us,” Celedon said. “We really have to talk about parks.”
The Boys and Men of Color group eventually invited the community, including elected officials, to discuss parks’ conditions at a forum at Yokomi Elementary School. Hearing young people say they didn’t feel safe at their parks resonated with the audience, Botello said.
“We don’t feel attached to the parks because they’re not invested in,” he said. “We realized, if we invest more in these parks, we’ll want to reclaim the parks. We’re going to want to take our families to the park. I wouldn’t take my family to the park nearest to me because it’s not clean enough.…We always have to drive super, super far to feel safe in a park.”
Others agree with Botello and his peers. The Trust for Public Land for the last five years scored Fresno’s parks dead last or near last out of the country’s 100 most populous cities. Fresno’s score crept up to 90 in 2017 but fell to 94 in 2018.
With those ratings and anecdotes in mind, proponents have advanced Measure P onto the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s a 3/8 percent sales tax that would raise about $38 million annually over 30 years. The measure divvies up 46 percent of the money for park maintenance; 21 percent for new parks and recreational facilities; about 8 percent on youth and senior recreation, after-school programs, and job training; about 11 percent on trails and the San Joaquin River Parkway; and 12 percent for arts and culture programs. The measure requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
Some say the measure, while well intentioned, ultimately means more dollars forked out by taxpayers, while those funds should go toward premiums services, like police and fire.
There are high-profile opponents to the measure, including Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno Chamber of Commerce and many others. Meanwhile, Fresno for Parks, Yes on P’s supporters, includes two former Fresno mayors and several other current and former elected officials, Realtors, hospitals, pastors, tech companies, ag business and more.
Mayor Lee Brand said it’s hard to be on the opposition, and he’s not against parks. “I’ll be the first to say we need help with our parks. Nobody here is against parks,” he said in a news conference this week at One Putt Broadcasting. “But we need a balanced approach. It totally neglects public safety.”
Brand and others said the measure allocates too much money for parks for too long.
Negotiations between the mayor and unions and the parks coalition have spanned 10 months, beginning around the beginning of 2018. If Measure P fails, Brand said he hopes to return in 2020 with a sales tax measure that addresses both parks and public safety.
Fresno’s history of neglecting parks
If you ask Tom Bohigian, a Measure P advocate and donor, he will tell you Fresno’s park neglect became evident in the 1990s, when he served on the Fresno City Council. The city at the time was focused on cracking down on extreme gang violence. The 1989 parks master plan was never realized, and as the city dealt with a recession, the parks budget was slashed. Fresno parks – and median landscaping, too – never recovered.
“We’re going backward at a rapid rate,” he said. “Where we are, it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. Some people, when they see something in a certain condition, they get used to it. They get numb to it. Most people will say that’s just the way it is.”
Celedon and her team trace their roots to that same parks master plan that hasn’t been touched since.
“That was kind of the first aha moment, policy-wise, for us,” she said.
Advocates spent 2015 looking at the budget and found that during the recession, from 2009 to 2013, the parks budget was cut 52 percent, resulting in layoffs and reductions in parks maintenance. Research done in partnership with the Trust for Public Land and Communities for a New California revealed a stark disparity of green space and parks in Fresno. In Fresno south of Shaw Avenue, there was 1 acre of green space per 1,000 residents. North of Shaw, that number rose to 4.6 acres.
Armed with information and determination, Fresno BHC launched an educational campaign highlighting the disparities in Fresno’s parks and advocating for funding.
The #Parks4All campaign, as it was called, was deemed “too political” from the start. After paying the city of Fresno $25,000 for ads that wrapped around FAX buses with north-south routes, city leaders blocked the ads from ever going onto the buses.
“The story really goes that there was somebody down at the (city) yard, and they were literally about to put up this wrap on the bus and then they saw it,” Celedon said. “They stopped and called their supervisor for a moment, and they said, ‘Did you see this?’ That halted the whole campaign.”
The ad used data from the city highlighting the disparity in park spaces throughout Fresno. It depicted a young girl’s face, half in black and white and half in color. The black and white half of the ad represented south Fresno, while the color side represented north Fresno. At the bottom, the ad read: “Your ZIP code shouldn’t predict how long you’ll live – but it does. Because where we live, affects how we live. Staying healthy requires much more than diets and doctors. We need #OneHealthyFresno with better parks for all.”
The city ruled the ad too political to run on the city buses, even though Fresno BHC argued the information came straight from the city’s general plan.
“That was the biggest gift, I think, the city probably gave us, at that point,” Celedon said. “And so the city ended up giving us our money back. They didn’t want to run it, and it turned into this big thing.”
Despite the bus ad spat, then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the Fresno City Council in June 2015 passed a budget that included a pledge of $6 million for parks maintenance and new parks. Newly minted Councilmember Esmeralda Soria, who represents District 1 and now is the council president, sought an additional $1 million for parks, but lost.
The budget also allocated $450,000 to update the parks master plan, a move Fresno BHC considered a big win.
Romain Skate Park
While launching the #Parks4All campaign, Fresno BHC was busy putting its money where its mouth was.
In September 2015, the city, Fresno BHC and Street League Skateboarding Foundation struck a deal on a new skate park at Romain Neighborhood Center in Councilman Clint Olivier’s district. Fresno BHC built the skate park with private dollars and donated it to the city, soliciting community input on the park’s design and funding.
Fresno BHC used the skate park to highlight its new #Parks4All campaign and call on the city to make progress on the parks master plan.
“We got to the point where the city was really sitting on the parks master plan update,” Celedon said. “They already hired a consultant, but they really weren’t making much movement.”
Fresno BHC began assembling a parks coalition that included groups such as the Trust for Public Land, Tree Fresno, the San Joaquin River Parkway, Fresno Arts Council, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and more. This coalition, Fresno for Parks, eventually evolved and became the collaborating partners to write Measure P.
At the end of 2016, Celedon said, Swearengin joined the parks coalition. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
The parks coalition and Trust for Public Land conducted a voter poll in 2016 to determine whether Fresno residents were willing to pay to improve parks. The results were clear: yes. But to move forward, the coalition needed a government body to do a feasibility study.
The coalition met with Swearengin and showed her the poll. “Ashley, being the true politician that she is, goes by poll numbers,” Celedon said. “So her eyes lit up.”
Swearengin gave the green light for the Trust for Public Land to do a feasibility study.
Parks Master Plan
The Parks Master Plan was completed and adopted in January 2018 under new Mayor Lee Brand (who was endorsed by Swearengin).
The process of completing the plan revealed that Fresno parks required $5 million in maintenance each year, and in 2018 the city faced an estimated $220 million or so in deferred maintenance to bring parks up to the minimum health and safety standards. Eight out of 10 city parks were in poor or fair condition.
Celedon said those stats were embarrassing: “But that’s the reality we’re facing.”
Parks advocates said the plan didn’t go far enough in establishing a vision for Fresno’s parks. It mainly addressed how to bring Fresno’s current parks up to par and established a road map to complete projects that were never finished.
“It does not address the disparity because there isn’t a real recommendation for pushing for new parkland acquisition,” said Venise Curry, daughter of southwest Fresno community activist Mary Curry. “I understand that it is costly … and yet if we only focus on maintaining the current parks that we have, we absolutely won’t be addressing the No. 1 issue, which is that disparity. Maintenance alone is not going to solve the issue of there not being enough park space in south Fresno.”
Parks advocates weren’t sure what the right solution was and continued mulling the sales tax idea. “The truth about it is, we didn’t know,” Celedon said. “We kept saying we don’t know if this is the right way. We don’t know if there’s appetite. We know the realities that people face. We just weren’t sure, to be quite honest.”
Central Valley Community Foundation comes to the table
Swearengin left office in early 2017 and went straight to work as the CEO at Central Valley Community Foundation, formerly known as Fresno Regional Foundation. Through her, CVCF joined the parks coalition.
The daughter of Louis Gundelfinger left an endowment of his estate to be managed by CVCF. Gundelfinger was one of the first leaders of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce who helped form a parks commission in Fresno. He also helped develop Roeding Park. The endowment left to CVCF was for parks and music in the city of Fresno, so CVCF began using the money in 2017 when Fresno for Parks coalesced.
With Gundelfinger’s endowment, it became clear that an effort to pass a sales tax measure could become a reality.
The foundation conducted another poll on public support, and the numbers stayed true, Celedon said.
In early 2018, CVCF’s board voted unanimously to use the money to fund the campaign for Measure P. Juan Arambula, a former Assembly member, and Larry Powell, former Fresno County superintendent of schools and a pastor at People’s Church, were named co-chairs of the initiative.
“Ashley Swearengin, Juan Arambula and myself – we’ve been around the horn a number of times,” Powell said. “We did not go into this with our eyes closed. ...Nothing was sugar-coated. There was no way this was going to be an easy challenge. We knew how hard it was going to be.”
The summer of 35,000 signatures
Fresno for Parks leaders knew it wouldn’t gain enough support on the Fresno City Council to qualify for the ballot. At least three members – Steve Brandau, who represents District 2 in northwest Fresno; Garry Bredefeld, who represents District 6 in northeast Fresno; and Olivier, who represents District 7 in central Fresno – were conservatives unlikely to support any tax.
“I kept having to remind people, instead of tough, TIF: This Is Fresno,” Celedon said. “That’s not how it works here.”
After months of crafting the language for a petition, Fresno for Parks launched a signature-gathering effort in the spring.
The coalition hired a paid signature-gathering firm, which has become a common practice with ballot measures in California. But, better-paying efforts for other statewide propositions also were underway. So Fresno BHC stepped up and collected more than 12,000 signatures.
Powell said a big reason the coalition was successful in gathering the signatures was because the measure was community-led.
“Folks clearly understood the passion we had to go out and seek these signatures,” he said. “A lot of us in the campaign won’t reap the immediate benefits of this, simply because of our age. Our kids, grandkids and their kids will live in a different Fresno if this passes. That, to me, was an amazing motivator – to leave a legacy for our kids. That has not been done for Fresno.”
Laura Ward and her husband call their Fresno High neighborhood the “poster child” for Measure P. They drive 20 minutes from their home to the nearest park “worth going to,” Oso de Oro Park. In Ward’s household, her husband is more fired-up about parks, while her passion is the arts.
Measure P is something “we both connect with,” she said.
Together, the couple gathered 1,000 signatures from known voters in their neighborhood. Residents found the accountability and transparency language in the measure reassuring, Ward said.
“It was easier to engage people who might have to think harder about what the impact would be on them before actually voting on it,” she said. “But having the opportunity to put it on the ballot really resonated with people.”
Negotiations with Mayor Brand
On paper, Measure P opponents filed the “Fresnans for a Safer Community” committee early in September 2018. But in June, while volunteers were pounding the pavement collecting signatures, it became clear that Mayor Brand wouldn’t support Measure P.
In fact, he introduced his own half-cent sales tax initiative that gave a quarter-cent each to parks and public safety. He announced the plan with the police and fire chief by his side, along with both the firefighter and police officer unions. Within hours, Fresno City Council members responded, one by one, saying they wouldn’t vote to put the initiative on the November ballot, and in under a week Brand killed the plan.
That essentially ended any hope the mayor would support Measure P. He said his proposal was as far as he was willing to go in terms of compromise.
It didn’t necessarily catch the parks coalition by surprise, but leaders did express disappointment.
“This wasn’t an advocacy campaign that we started, “ Celedon said. “This is something we responded to. The mayor reneged on his promise. He certainly wasn’t representing all of Fresno. He was representing a very small group of connected special interests.”
Arambula said the negotiation process was long, arduous and confusing.
“It was a little unusual because there were times when we seemed to be going backward instead of forward,” he said. “I do believe there is now a better understanding as a result of our discussions, a better understanding that we need both parks and public safety. The mayor seems to think we have to have one before the other. My attitude is we can have both if we set our minds to it and set our egos aside. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Qualifying for the ballot
Fresno for Parks gathered its 35,000 signatures by late July, but held off on submitting them to the city clerk for two weeks in hope of striking a deal with the mayor. That didn’t happen.
Fresno for Parks celebrated at Radio Park, where Swearengin emceed the program, saying the coalition “defied the odds.”
It was mostly a formality, but Fresno City Council approved Measure P for the November ballot in early August after hearing from dozens of residents who spoke to the need.
Even the council members against the tax applauded the effort, saying the signature-gathering was impressive.
“There was a ton of excitement,” Arambula said. “People were enthusiastic. It seemed like it was a new day. We had come a long ways, but we knew we still had a lot of work to do. It seemed so incredible we had come that far, especially in such a short period of time.”
No on P
Since then, the opposition to Measure P has become more organized.
Opponents to Measure P have two main arguments: either they’re against new taxes altogether, or they say public safety should be the first priority over parks.
Brand has led the No on P charge, assembling a powerful team that includes the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis, both the police and fire unions and Darius Assemi, businessman and developer of Granville Homes.
“Measure P has serious flaws,” Brand said, saying it will overfund parks and is presented as a panacea for all of Fresno’s problems.
The group denies being against parks, saying everyone agrees Fresno’s parks need upgrades. But they question Measure P’s 30-year sunset, saying it’s too long.
Dyer and Donis need more officers and firefighters to keep up with a growing population and increasing demand. The city’s 911 dispatch center needs more dispatchers, and the city should be preparing to build three new fire stations.
“We do all support parks improvements,” Donis said, “but not at the expense of other departments.”
Councilman OIiver Baines, who represents District 3, said he sees parks as a public safety issue because of his former job as a police officer. “Young men were sucked into the gang and criminal lifestyles because they had no alternative,” he said.
He said the No on P support is a “short-sighted mindset that lacks leadership completely.”
A ‘transformational’ change for Fresno?
When Celedon reflects on where Measure P came from, she remembers Botello and the other young people in the community. “The story of parks really is that this is community-led,” she said. “This has been an issue that was brought forth by community members, that has been driven by community members, carried by community members and gotten to this point by community members.”
Celedon said that if Measure P passes, it will give her son a chance to see a different Fresno.
On the other hand, the mayor and No on P group promise if voters reject Measure P this year, the two groups will work together to propose a “more balanced approach” for the 2020 ballot. Despite 10 months of unfruitful negotiations, Brand said he believes it can be done.
For now, however, the fate of the parks question ultimately depends on the voters.