Fresno voters will decide on a sales tax hike to benefit local parks on Nov. 6
It is an early Saturday morning in a future summer, and the warm air has enticed a group of men and women to join an aerobics class in a southeast Fresno park. Nearby, young moms push strollers and chat as they walk briskly. In the distance families ready for the day’s youth soccer matches.
They all come from varied ethnic groups and income levels. But they gather in common on the lush green lawns of the park, which is dotted with large shade trees. Everyone is here to be outside, exercise, commune and have fun. The park is sparkling clean, with good equipment and restrooms.
The same future scene is playing out across Fresno in parks that have been modernized, repaired, cleaned up and even newly built. Gone are the homeless who made the parks their camping spot; the drug paraphernalia that littered the ground; and the gang graffiti that was spray-painted on restrooms and trash cans. As the busy day moves into the evening, lights come on and park rangers patrol to ensure everyone is safe. Groups gather to barbecue and enjoy the cool night air.
While other California cities enjoy such a reality now, this represents a grand vision for Fresno. And it can come about if voters pass Measure P, the parks initiative placed on the ballot by citizens. It would boost the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent. The Bee recommends a yes vote on Measure P as a necessary step toward Fresno’s continuing push to become a great city.
To be sure, the idealized vision described above occurs now in some of the city’s parks. But in others, children play soccer on nothing more than dirt, wading pools sit empty and unused in scorching summer months, and bathrooms are padlocked and off limits. Such conditions are mostly found in parks south of Shaw Avenue.
The drive to create great parks will not be easy, and will not come cheaply. The city has other urgent needs, like public safety. But a revitalized park system that benefits all Fresnans can be transformative, and is worth it if Fresno truly wants to be great.
Parks in dismal condition
Fresno’s elected leaders for decades have not spent the money to properly maintain parks. Last year Fresno spent $35.33 per capita on parks. Bakersfield spent $73.56 and Sacramento $118.56.
Today Fresno has a backlog of $225 million in deferred capital purchases and maintenance needs. For years, the city has ranked near the bottom of the annual ParkScore list complied by the Trust for Public Land. In the latest ranking, Fresno was 94th out of 100. The city’s Parks Master plan says 80 percent of Fresno’s parks are in fair or poor condition.
A citizen’s effort developed into a campaign to get qualify a ballot initiative, and after proponents gathered 35,000 signatures, Measure P was born.
What Measure P would do
A three-eighths of a cent increase in sales tax would cost a typical household $39 a year, or $3.25 per month, proponents say. Measure P would run for 30 years before it would come up for renewal. That is longer than typical taxing measures. But proponents say the need is so great, it will take that long to properly invest in parks.
Annually, Measure P would raise $37.5 million. There is a set formula for how the money would be spent. The bulk would go toward capital improvements and maintenance at existing parks. The measure would also fund a staff of park rangers to patrol the facilities.
A nine-member citizens commission would be formed to provide oversight and ensure that the money raised is being used as promised.
Measure P is supported by a broad cross section of groups — health, arts and business organizations; activists who help low-income residents, youth and people of color; and elected officials, including two past mayors, Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin.
One person not backing Measure P is Fresno’s current mayor, Lee Brand. He says the measure directs too much money to parks while there are other critical city needs, such as bolstering police and fire departments as well as public works. That situation would only get worse when the next recession hits, Brand says. And he is particularly worried how parks would get funding locked in for three decades.
Fresno finds itself in this fix in large part because it does not generate tax revenue like cities elsewhere in California. He said one in three residents lives in poverty; the median household annual income is $42,000; only 20 percent of residents have a college degree.
Fresno’s public safety departments get 75 percent of the general fund, but that said, they confront significant challenges as they come back from recession-era cutting:
▪ Police Chief Jerry Dyer says the minimum number of officers he needs is 900. The department is authorized for 822 now. The department receives 3,000 calls a day at its dispatch center; of those, 1,200 are emergencies. Yet there are fewer dispatchers working than in 2009, when the Great Recession started.
▪ Fire Chief Kerri Donis has 77 firefighters on duty at any time. She said the minimum should be 100. Her department also needs to buy $10 million in new equipment, and three new fire stations are required to adequately serve the city.
Brand also points to $600 million in deferred street and sidewalk repairs.
The city leaders know parks are in bad shape, and improving them is important. But they say there needs to be more funding for the critical public-safety needs, and that Measure P would put the city’s priorities out of balance. Furthermore, the voters may have only so much tolerance for tax hikes. If they pass a parks measure now, it would be unlikely they’d also back a public-safety tax in two years.
“When I was on the (city) council, I got calls for dying trees” at Woodward Park, Brand recalled. “You have to balance the needs. It’s prioritizing. Do you want a dead tree here, or a dead body?”
Measure P needs two-thirds approval by voters to pass — a high bar not easily reached by initiatives. Polling done by proponents suggests they will achieve such support, but only Election Day matters.
There is real gravity to this decision. Measure P is a lot of money — $1.14 billion over the 30-year span. City officials say the real cost is $2.5 billion if an inflation factor of 2.5 percent is figured in.
The question is what do Fresnans want their city to be?
Measure P advocates believe that by investing in parks, Fresno will become a more desirable place to live. Property values will go up and crime will decrease. That will prove attractive to businesses that might locate here. If they provide decent wages to their employees, that earning power results in taxes that, in turn, can help with the city’s revenues.
That is a lot of ifs.
But here’s one certainty: City leaders have failed time and again to take care of Fresno’s parks. In that way, they have limited residents’ quality of life. That comes through repeatedly in the city’s parks master plan, adopted earlier this year.
Fresno is better than this, and can aspire to be great. This is a step. The Bee recommends a yes vote on Measure P to affirm that grand vision.