Marek Warszawski

Fresno politicians and bureaucrats have failed on parks. So now it’s up to us

Park tax measure passes Fresno City Council unanimously

A park tax measure passed unanimously by Fresno City Council though some councilmembers said they would not vote for it in the election.
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A park tax measure passed unanimously by Fresno City Council though some councilmembers said they would not vote for it in the election.

Gathering 35,000 signatures in 3 1/2 months, getting them verified and gaining Fresno City Council approval for a November ballot initiative … that’s the easy part.

Now comes the next hurdle for Fresno for Parks supporters: Convincing two-thirds of the citywide electorate to vote to tax themselves.

There can be no debate that Fresno needs more parks and to take better care of its existing parks. It needs more walking and biking trails. It needs more arts and after-school programs for youths and litter removal from our street medians and freeways.

The Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhoods Parks Tax Initiative would provide the funding for each of these things by raising the city’s sales tax by three-eighths of a cent. The tax is expected to generate $37.5 million in its first year and more than $1.1 billion over a 30-year life span.

Yes that’s billion, with a b.

In a city that spends only 4 cents out of every general-fund dollar on parks – less than half what comparable-sized cities spend – and ranks at or near the bottom of the barrel in every nationwide parks study, it’ll take that kind of dough to bring Fresno’s open space up to snuff.

Generations of elected officials and bureaucrats have failed the citizens of Fresno when it comes to parks. (The closed restroom at Jensen River Ranch near Woodward Park is but one example.)

The restroom at the Jensen River Ranch north of Woodward Park has been closed since 2014 as the city of Fresno and San Joaquin River Conservancy dispute which public agency is responsible for its upkeep. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

So now the onus falls on us. If we want better parks and other quality-of-life improvements, we need to dig into own our pockets and pony up. Extreme problems require extreme solutions.

“We have to make a case, no doubt about it, and I think the case is that it’s transformational,” said Larry Powell, the former Fresno County schools superintendent who is helping spearhead Fresno for Parks. “We haven’t done anything like this in Fresno for as long as I’ve been here. So when they’re saying $1.1 billion as kind of a negative, I’m saying, ‘That’s exactly what we need to be doing.’

“We have not been doing that. We’ve been doing things piecemeal, so nothing ever gets accomplished. This is one of those deals that steps way beyond everything else.”

Powell was referring to the three self-styled tax fighters of the City Council (Steve Brandau, Garry Bredefeld and Clint Olivier), all of whom voiced objections to the measure but did not stand in its way from getting on the ballot.

Brandau said it was too much money “for just one issue in our city.” Oliver said it would place too heavy a burden on the poor. And Bredefeld complained about California’s high tax rates (as if Fresno can just pick up and move) while tossing out misinformation as fact.

Since I’m fairly certain no one on KMJ will correct Bredefeld when he sounds off in their echo chamber, let me point out a few things.

First, Fresno spends $12.8 million on parks from the general fund. Bredefeld threw out a much larger number.

Second, the $4 billion statewide parks and conservation bond passed by California voters in June does not mean money will flow here automatically. Not unless the city, in the words of council president Esmeralda Soria, “has some skin in the game. We need money to leverage money.”

Third, the nine-member Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission created by the initiative would be nominated by the mayor with City Council approval. Furthermore, all spending still requires City Council go-ahead. If Bredefeld is so afraid of “unelected” people wielding so much power, as he claims, he’d better disband the Planning Commission, too.

Natasha Biasell, center, looks over her shoulder after Eric Payne asked for a show of support for parks among those gathered as the Fresno City Council met to discuss and vote on the agenda’s parks tax Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

Olivier’s burden-on-the-poor argument doesn’t hold much water either, because it’s lower-income families in areas without access to safe, kept-up parks that will see the most benefit.

“If you don’t have money to go to the movies or do other kinds of things, where do you go? The parks,” Powell said. “But if the parks are dangerous and not well-maintained, you don’t go. We’re actually, for a small amount of money, giving them a safe place to take their kids.”

How small? The average household would pay an extra $3.25 per month in taxes. Which is less than the cost of a Big Mac.

I was present during Thursday’s meeting, and it was inspiring to hear so many people project their visions of a better Fresno. Parks not only promote a more healthy lifestyle, giving people the space to walk, run, bike and picnic, they can also spur economic development, boost property values and make the city a more desirable place to live.

Want to reduce Fresno’s brain drain? Give people a reason to stay besides inexpensive housing.

“Everyone in this room pays a price for our inability to attract talented individuals to our community,” said Allen Pierrot, board chair of the Central Valley Regional Foundation.

No one likes to pay more taxes. That’s a universal truth. Except this tax isn’t being foisted upon us by politicians in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. It’s the people of Fresno deciding whether to tax themselves in order to enhance the city in which they live. The money stays here.

Convincing two-thirds of the electorate to pony up for better parks won’t be easy. (There are legal rulings that could lower that threshold to a simple majority, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.) To me, it boils down to a simple question: Do you want to make Fresno a better, more desirable place to live, and is that worth $3.25 a month?

Let’s hope enough people see the logic.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee