Valley Voices

A state bill could hurt Fresno’s ability to improve its economy and quality of life

Workers package products for customers at the Amazon fulfillment center in south Fresno on Tuesday, July 24, 2019.
Workers package products for customers at the Amazon fulfillment center in south Fresno on Tuesday, July 24, 2019. Fresno Bee file

By every measure, Fresno is a city struggling to achieve the levels of economic success enjoyed by its much wealthier neighbors along the California coast.

In this state’s two-tier economy, we are on the bottom rung. The Census Bureau estimates Fresno’s poverty rate to be over 28 percent, more than double the state’s rate of 13.3 percent. Census tracts in our districts have the second highest concentration of poverty in the nation.

These rates are even higher for our communities of color. A recent Public Policy Institute of California study found that Latino poverty statewide is 23.4 percent, which is far above the 12.5 percent rate among white Californians. In Fresno, about half our population is Latino.

Fresno City Council member Luis Chavez. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

These are the struggles Fresno faces daily — and each day we work to change this narrative. We’ve made excellent progress over the last few years. Three new e-commerce distribution centers have created more than 4,000 good-paying jobs with 401K benefits. Our unemployment rate has come down substantially, but remains drastically higher than the state average.

All of this will change if SB 531 is approved by the Assembly and signed by the governor. This bill would prohibit Fresno and other disadvantaged California cities from using sales tax revenue after Jan. 1, 2020 to create incentive agreements to attract large employers. Contrary to what SB 531 author Sen. Steve Glazer and others may say, this legislation will make it harder for poorer communities like Fresno to provide good-paying jobs.

I’ve personally heard from many people in my district who are working at Amazon and Ulta Beauty and they have great things to say about what these good-paying jobs and benefits mean for their families. Many of these employees used to be on public assistance or incarcerated. Hope has replaced frustration.

These are not the only new jobs Fresno needs, but they are important for the city. For people in and out of the workforce that have a high school diploma or GED, these jobs are great starting places where they can learn new skills and build a career — a first step towards self-sufficiency. For example, in Fresno, a two-income household can afford to buy a house and is not limited to renting. This narrative is one that points to a better, brighter future for Fresno and other cities looking to lift their most vulnerable citizens out of poverty and into full-time jobs.

This is definitely not the end. It is instead a beginning. This is Fresno’s new narrative. A city long associated with the agriculture industry is diversifying its economy. In an area where seasonal temp jobs in 100-degree heat are common, distribution centers offer employment options. As a result of these jobs, wages are increasing and living standards are rising.

Unfortunately, people like Sen. (Steve) Glazer, who dislike incentive agreements, don’t see these success stories. They don’t see Amazon, Ulta or Gap employees who are thrilled to have a better-paying job that allows them a chance to achieve the American dream. They don’t see the millions of dollars annually that are now in Fresno’s tax coffers, allowing the city to provide better services. And they don’t see the tens of millions in additional revenue going to our schools to educate children.

Fresno uses these sales tax incentives agreements to attract good-paying jobs to our city. These agreements are not corporate giveaways, but are instead a job-creation strategy that incentivizes employing people and paying them a living wage with benefits. This can continue as long as cities like Fresno can rely on using all the economic tools available, including tax incentives, to attract new businesses and create good-paying jobs.

We cannot perpetuate the tale of “two states,” where coastal regions enjoy six-figure average median incomes, a diverse, rich economy and plentiful job options for their residents, while communities in the Central Valley and Inland Empire suffer from high unemployment, crippling poverty, low educational attainment levels and lower standards of living. Social and environmental justice should equally focus on economic opportunity justice — especially in disadvantaged communities of color. Fresno will continue to see its unemployment rate drop to historic lows and the quality of life improve, unless SB 531 stops it.

Luis Chavez represents southeast Fresno’s District 5 on the City Council.