Marek Warszawski

Supporters, opponents of Fresno parks tax are talking again. Can they craft a deal?

Fresno voters will decide on a sales tax hike to benefit local parks on Nov. 6

Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.
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Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.

Supporters of a Fresno city parks tax, and opponents who helped defeat such a measure at the ballot box last November, are talking again.

Where will the discussions lead? Way too early to predict. For now, the news is that the two sides are in the same room having a discourse.

So far there have been two meetings, both called by Mayor Lee Brand and held in the City Council’s closed-session room. Tim Orman, Brand’s chief of staff, served as facilitator at both sessions.

The first meeting took place in March and was essentially an airing of grievances that lingered from the last election cycle, according to multiple sources with first-hand knowledge. Measure P, which would have bolstered Fresno’s woeful parks with a ⅜-percent sales tax for the next 30 years, received 52.2 percent of the vote but not the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

The second, held April 23, had a larger invitation list (about 20) along with a friendlier, more cooperative tone, those same sources said.

Measure P supporters present at last week’s meeting included Larry Powell, former Fresno County schools superintendent; Elliott Balch, COO of the Central Valley Community Foundation; Paul Gibson, former owner of Guarantee Real Estate; Sharon Weaver, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust; Sandra Celedon, president and CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities; Mark Keppler, executive director of Fresno State’s Maddy Institute; Councilmember Esmerelda Soria; local businessman Bill Lyles; and Pastor DJ Criner of Saint Rest Baptist Church.

Opponents included Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer; Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis; Nathan Ahle, president and CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce; local businessman Pete Weber; radio station owner John Ostlund and two representatives of Fresno City Firefighters Local 753. The Fresno Police Officers Association was represented at the first meeting but not the second.

“We’re at the very beginning,” a source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Anything and everything can happen.”

“It’s a pretty good-faithed group,” another said.

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

The impetus for the meetings is whether the two sides can agree on a joint ballot measure that would benefit parks and public with a citywide sales tax hike, preferably on the November 2020 ballot.

However, that’s far from a sure thing. A ballot measure combining parks and public safety proposed by Brand four months before the November election went nowhere. The end result also could be separate ballot measures for parks and public safety — with a handshake agreement neither side campaigns against the other.

It is far too soon to predict how large a tax would be proposed in a combined measure, though a recent one-cent sales tax hike narrowly approved by voters in Bakersfield has not escaped Fresno’s attention.

Bakersfield plans to hire 100 police officers, 23 fire department staff and bolster other city services with what’s projected to be a $58 million annual windfall.

“People are asking, ‘If Bakersfield can do it, why can’t we?’“ one of the Fresno meeting attendees said.

The problem with that comparison is Bakersfield’s sales tax sits at 8.25 percent, following the recent hike. Taxpayers in Fresno are already paying 7.925 percent with special taxes for transportation, libraries and the zoo. Adding a full cent would bring Fresno’s sales tax rate closer to Los Angeles (9.5%) and San Jose (9.25%) and higher than San Francisco (8.5%), Sacramento (8.25%) and San Diego (7.75%) among California’s six largest cities.

Can Fresno, where 28 percent of the population lives in poverty and one in five families receive food stamps or other supplemental food assistance, really afford that?

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, who opposed Measure P, wants to meet with the measure supporters and come up with a tax measure that combines public safety with parks. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

Another question that must be answered is whether these two groups, which squared off in the last election cycle, can work together. Getting over hard feelings, or at least addressing them, was the first step.

At the March meeting, Brand and Dyer were called out for the tactics they employed to help defeat Measure P, which many parks supporters felt were underhanded. (As did I.) Brand and Dyer both expressed remorse for their actions, according to multiple sources, although whether they apologized depends on whom you ask.

Parks supporters also requested the public safety side come up with specific personnel increases and improvements that would be funded by a sales tax hike.

“It can’t just be a money grab,” one said.

Brand pledged to get the two sides in the same room again following the defeat of Measure P, and he’s doing that. Helping shepherd a combined parks and public safety measure on the 2020 ballot would no doubt strengthen the mayor’s reelection bid.

Yes, I’ve seen the polls. Brand’s people surely have, too, which may account for the snippy tone in his response to Andrew Janz’s paperwork filing.

However, it won’t be an easy task to bring the two sides together. The gap Brand himself helped widen doesn’t make it any easier.

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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.