Marek Warszawski

From $70M grants to giant rodents: 10 Fresno-area stories that deserved more buzz

Large rodents invading the San Joaquin Valley

Large invasive rodents may be invading California's Delta. A small team of Fish & Wildlife field biologists is assessing the danger nutria pose for wreaking havoc on the Delta.
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Large invasive rodents may be invading California's Delta. A small team of Fish & Wildlife field biologists is assessing the danger nutria pose for wreaking havoc on the Delta.

From midterm-election madness to wildfires and mouthy Fresno State professors — 2018 was jam-packed with news and events that made huge headlines and generated oodles of clicks.

This isn’t about any of those.

Rather than count down the year’s biggest stories impacting the people of Fresno and its environs, traipse with me through 10 that didn’t get enough attention, were overshadowed by larger events or slipped through the cracks.

C’mon, it’ll be fun.

$70 million for disadvantaged Fresno

There’s finally a bright side to the decades of high poverty rates and bad air that have afflicted two long-neglected parts of town: $70 million in grants from cap-and-trade funds.

Essentially it’s money that came from the pockets of the state’s biggest polluters … and into the hands of its most disadvantaged communities.

The $70 million, dispersed by the California Strategic Growth Council, will help build a new Fresno City College satellite campus in southwest Fresno; a 68-unit affordable housing complex with retail in Chinatown; “urban greening” projects including tree planting, bike pathways and street improvements; and a shareable network of electric cars, vans and bikes.

Since January, when all this was finalized, things have been kinda quiet. Maybe even too quiet. When does the money start flowing in? What project gets top priority? Those are two good questions for early 2019.

Those ruinous rodents

Invasion of the Giant Rodents – it sounds more like the plot of a B-horror flick than an actual threat.

Except it’s real.

In the spring, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began warning the public about the presence of nutria, a highly destructive swamp rodent that can grow up to 2 1/2 feet long and weigh 20 pounds.

Nutria are voracious eaters. In places like Louisiana and Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, they turned thousands of acres of wetlands into barren mudflats.

The same could easily happen here. And if allowed to gain a foothold in the Delta, officials fear them using their burrowing skills to tunnel into our irrigation canals and levees, exposing homes and crops to floodwaters.

What are our politicians doing to address this threat? Not enough. The entire eradication effort (360 nutria have been captured and killed since April) consists of a small group of CDFW field biologists and contracted trappers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture working an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Better bus service getting results

Monday marked the first day of Fresno’s new bus rapid transit system, called FAX Q, which stands for "quick" and “quiet." The buses, running on natural gas and painted in a distinctive light blue, will run along Kings Canyon to downtown, then up

The Fresno Area Express Q, better known as Bus Rapid Transit, debuted to a fair amount of hoopla in February when the bright-blue buses rolled out of downtown Fresno to points north (via Blackstone Ave.) and east (via Kings Canyon Road).

Having a fleet of clean-air buses zipping up and down two of Fresno’s busiest corridors – and largely paid for with federal grants – is a vast improvement to Fresno’s public transportation system.

And, so far, the service is catching on. While no official figures will be released until 2019, city hall insiders tell me ridership is up 9.5 percent systemwide from 2017 fueled in large part by BRT, which carried 235,000 passengers in November alone.

Cold facts about long-held beliefs

People with college degrees have greater earning potential than those who don’t. It’s one of those intrinsic beliefs we all accept as a universal truth.

A study by Public Policy Institute of California fleshed out those truths with some cold, hard statistics.

In Fresno County, men aged 25 and up with a graduate degree earn a median annual salary of $89,255. (For women it’s $76,676, which shows an obvious gender cap). Men with a bachelor’s degree earn $57,129, women $43,264. But for those with only a high school diploma, the salary figures dip to $31,581 (men) and $21,596 (women). That’s pretty startling.

“A college degree is the ticket to a good job and upward mobility in California,” said Hans Johnson, one of the co-authors.

Water makes for strange bedfellows

When the State Resources Control Board proposed to slash water allocations in the San Joaquin River drainage and give more to salmon and smelt, the Westlands Water District cried foul.

So, too, did the city of San Francisco, whose residents get their water via Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the Tuolumne River.

Which put California’s largest agricultural water district and its most liberal-leaning city on the same side of a contentious issue.

Odd? I thought so too.

Fresno’s 911 call center overwhelmed

A tour of Fresno Police Department's dispatch center which services other emergency agencies beyond city police. Fresno Police Department's dispatchers struggle to meet demands of calls.

When people punch 911 on their phones to report an emergency, dispatchers are supposed to answer 95 percent of calls in 15 seconds or less. That’s the statewide mandate.

In Fresno, that figure hovers around 70 to 75 percent. In summer, the busiest time for crime, it dips to around 60 percent.

What gives? The short answer is insufficient staffing. The Fresno Police Department currently employs 87 dispatchers, which is eight fewer than 20 years ago — even though call volume increased from 777,600 to 952,000 from 1997 to 2017.

“Our inability to meet the state standard for answering 911 calls is what keeps me up at night,” said Lt. David Newton, the department’s communications bureau manager.

Some help is on the way. In November, the City Council voted unanimously to fund eight new dispatchers from the $1.9 million sale of a parking lot across from Chukchansi Park to the Fresno Grizzlies.

It’s a start, but the city needs nearly 50 more dispatchers to meet the state mandate, Newton said.

Cox gives & Cox receives

Developer Terance Frazier is working with the City of Fresno to get the next phase of Granite Park completed. Four major soccer fields and eight smaller fields will be ready by mid-August and will be kicked off with a concert.

This wasn’t a headline. More like a stray fact buried deep within a larger story about a skirmish between the city of Fresno and two developers – Terance Frazier and TJ Cox – over Granite Park.

What caught my eye wasn’t necessarily whether the city will move to break its 25-year agreement with Frazier and Cox over their operation of the central Fresno sports park. It was more about the Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, the nonprofit headed by Frazier and Cox that operates the facility.

Cox is president of Central Valley NMTC LLC, a company that allocates federal tax credits to individuals or corporate investors who make investments in poor communities. One of those is CVCSF, which secured a $2.5 million donation of equipment, fixtures and operational supplies for Granite Park.

Meaning Cox not only heads up the company that doles out those federal tax credits, he also a board member (secretary/treasurer) of a nonprofit that received them.

Cox told Bee reporter Pablo Lopez he saw “nothing wrong” with that arrangement. But now that he’s a member of Congress, I’m thinking others may raise an eyebrow.

Housing sex offenders at great expense

Despite serving their time and being at the top of the list for deportation, about 30 men with sex crime records remain in custody.

Did you know California houses nearly 1,300 of its most violent criminal sex offenders at a hospital outside Coalinga? At a massive cost (more than $250 million annually) to the state’s taxpayers? With no evidence the psychiatric treatments only some of them (36 percent) undergo are even working?

We do now.

Plenty of interesting questions were raised in this April story. None of our elected representatives, including Joaquin Arambula, whose assembly district includes the hospital, were brave enough to provide any answers.

Teachers crowdfunding for desks

Teachers spend their own money on school supplies. It’s wrong but not exactly news. A friend of mine who teaches high school English plunks down about $1,500 every year on novels, movies, notebooks, pens, pencils and decor.

But I didn’t realize things had gotten so bad that dozens of Fresno Unified teachers resorted to online crowdfunding for things as fundamental as desks and chairs. Some even paint over graffiti in their classrooms.

“We need actual funding,” said Amy Sepulveda, a teacher at Fort Miller Middle School who tried to raise $1,600 for six large wooden tables on DonorsChoose.org.

Is anyone listening?

Agreement paves way for trails

Part of the Fresno Midtown Trail bike path was intended for Shields near First Street but so far, it's still dirt and gravel.

On a sweltering June afternoon in 2016, city officials held a press conference to announce the creation of the 7.1-mile Midtown Trail, touted as “a missing piece” in Fresno’s nascent network of urban walking and bike paths.

Thirty months later, not a shovel of dirt has been overturned on the canal banks along Shields and McKinley avenues. But the project may finally leave the starting gate now that the city has an agreement in place with the Fresno Irrigation District, which owns the land on which the trails will be built.

The City Council gave its unanimous blessing Dec. 13, and construction on the first trail segment between Fresno and First streets should begin next fall.

Councilman Steve Brandau said the Midtown Trail could be the most heavily used trail in Fresno, and for once I agree with him.

Must be the holiday cheer.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.

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