Marek Warszawski

Parks tax offers Fresno a choice: a better, more livable city or politics as usual

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.

The “P” in Measure P stands for Parks, obviously. It also stands for Playgrounds, Programs, Public spaces, Positive change and Pride in your city. All part of the social media messaging employed by backers of the November ballot measure.

But why stop there? The “P” in Measure P also stands for Politics, and of the most Peculiar kind.

On election day, Fresnans who exercise their right to vote will be asked “Yes” or “No” on the Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhoods Parks Tax Initiative. If two-thirds fill in the “Yes” bubble, revenues from a ⅜-percent sales tax would stream about $38 million annually into the city’s perpetually underfunded parks for the next 30 years. Some of the money goes to arts and recreation programs, trails and street beautification.

The Yes on P side has spent the last five months building momentum. The measure is endorsed by a gaggle of local politicians from both sides of the aisle, including former Fresno mayors Ashley Swearengin and Alan Autry; educators, doctors, developers, religious leaders, community activists, volunteers and the 35,000 or so people whose signatures got it on the ballot.

Measure P backers have collected in excess of $133,000, according to city filings. The largest contributor is Paul Gibson, whose donations of $63,781 include office space.

“My wallet is connected to my brain,” said Gibson, the former owner of Guarantee Real Estate. “We desperately need to reinvest in our parks again, and the longer we wait the more it’s going to cost us.”

The No on P side also boasts considerable political and financial heft. It includes Mayor Lee Brand and three conservative-leaning City Councilmembers, the police union and Chamber of Commerce, plus several developers, Realtors and businesses.

Organized under the moniker Fresnans for a Safer Community, opponents have amassed nearly $90,000. The largest checks are from developer Ed Kashian ($25,000), the Fresno Police Officers Association ($15,000) with Fagundes Agribusiness, John R. Lawson Rock & Oil and WCP Developers each pitching in $10,000.

One can only guess how much dark money will flow in courtesy of your friendly neighborhood political nonprofits.

“Parks are something that need attention,” Brand said, “but there are so many other things that need attention too. Particularly public safety.”

As you’ll recall, it was Brand who tried – and failed – to broker a joint measure that would have combined parks and public safety into one 1/2-percent tax. He couldn’t rally City Council support, and the parks group wasn’t especially keen on the idea.

Nikiko Masumoto, right, holds a sign in support of parks 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

So far, the campaign has yet to turn nasty. Measure P supporters are still making entreats to Brand trying to get him to change his stance. Six pastors paid a visit to his office and told him their congregations are behind it. Gibson and wife Joan Eaton wrote Brand a letter pledging their commitment toward helping him pass a public safety tax in the next ballot cycle.

“I want the mayor to feel like he can still come under the tent,” Gibson said. “I want the mayor to feel like he can still join us.”

The No on P side has yet to unleash its publicity campaign, though you know it’s coming.

Fresno’s parks need our help, the voiceover will say. However, this regressive tax is a well-intentioned but flawed idea. Parks don’t require so much money, certainly not at a time when police and fire need it more.

Such as the response I got from FPOA President Damon Kurtz:

“We don’t believe the city only has a parks problem, and I can’t advocate for parks unless the police department has the funding and staffing to make those parks safe.”

Out of every dollar in Fresno’s general fund, roughly 70 is allocated to public safety. Parks get 4 percent, which is less than half what some comparable cities spend. While police and fire staffing hasn’t returned to pre-Recession levels and the 911 call center is crammed, it’s impossible to argue public safety is getting the short stack.

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Kids are soaked as a giant bucket of water dumps over the top of them in the splash park at Inspiration Park in northwest Fresno as temperatures climb toward the triple digits on Saturday, June 23, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Not when those same parks are so blatantly neglected and insufficient for the needs of a city whose population is expected to climb to 635,000 by 2035. It’s all painstakingly spelled out in the city’s Parks Master Plan, which this mayor and city council adopted last year.

Measure P opponents say they prefer a joint measure that combines parks and public safety, which is awfully convenient considering they couldn’t make such a deal work. It also ignores the parks supporters’ own polling data, which showed more favorable numbers for a parks-only measure, as well as public safety-only, than when the two are bound together.

Just getting Measure P on the ballot was something of a feat. Only “four or five” out-of-town professional signature-gatherers aided the effort. The vast majority of those 35,189 names were collected by volunteers and young believers in the cause who got paid $4 per John Hancock to knock on doors in their neighborhoods.

In my book that’s something to be admired and respected – not toppled over and torched.

The fear from Measure P opponents is that if it passes, there will be a lesser appetite for a public safety tax in the future. (Fresno’s sales tax would grow from 7.975 to 8.35 percent.) Which is another way of saying, “When it comes to taxpayer dollars, we want first dibs.”

A two-thirds majority is a high bar to clear, and any day now we’ll start to see negative TV and radio spots designed to erode voter support. But before allowing yourself to be swayed, consider for a moment which side you’re aligning with.

The side that wants Fresno to become a better, more livable city, even if that requires digging into our own pockets for an extra $3.25 per month. Or the side doing the typical slash and burn.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee