Fresno Mayor Lee Brand is in the final stretch of his mayoralty at the helm of California’s fifth-largest city.
Tuesday night, in front of a television audience, he had the chance to layout what he described hours earlier at a City Council meeting as “the year from hell.”
And while his prime-time State of the City address touched on so many topics – from a light mention of his rags-to-riches story to his decision not to seek a second term – it didn’t dip too far into reflection on legacy.
It’s not hard to imagine why.
One day after the first-ever televised State of the City, Gov. Gavin Newsom returned swift rollbacks on Fresno’s economic reopening due to a spike in coronavirus cases.
Yet, in four years as Mayor and eight before that as a City Councilman, Brand – whose lack of braggadocio is only exceeded by that of the likes of George H.W. Bush – has never been one for ball-spiking.
On one subject, however, he should have been: defeating the financial quagmire of Fresno’s failed parks tax, Measure P.
As a councilman, the kid from McKenzie Street (better known to all of us as McKenzie Avenue) was a cunning budget craftsman – using a scalpel to slice away bureaucratic fat while restructuring Fresno’s financial house to stave off bankruptcy.
Taking office as Mayor with the Great Recession in the rear-view, Brand sought to utilize Fresno’s upswinging economy to properly fund the city’s public safety infrastructure with a tax measure of his own.
Ultimately, he was forced to fend off a 30-year sales tax measure that would spend tens of millions annually on one singular priority: the city’s parks.
Last year, I wrote a series about the creation and campaign of Measure P. It’s a fascinating look at the effort afoot to craft the three-decade-long tax measure and the campaign for and against it.
Brand became the face of opposition to Measure P, routinely harping on its bevy of shortcomings in his trademark matter-of-fact style.
Chief among the shortcomings was the inevitable impact of a 30-year sales tax that was crafted as a specific tax (i.e. it could only be spent on certain programs and projects).
Brand contended that Measure P was overly-prescriptive in its spending and took away any flexibility for the City’s financial whizzes to navigate a recession without deep cuts to its biggest ticket budget items, police and firefighting.
That contention was dismissed by Measure P supporters as a bald-faced lie by His Honor and served as the scapegoat for the tax measure’s ultimate defeat at the polls in November 2018 retrospectives.
Fast-forward to 2020.
We remain in the midst of a global pandemic that shuttered businesses of nearly every stripe for multiple months, sent Fresno’s unemployment rate back to levels unseen since the worst bouts of the Great Recession, and gutted the sales tax revenues that serve as the lifeblood of municipal budgets.
It’s still a distinct possibility that the City of Fresno will have to deliver massive cuts to services – public safety included.
However, with the state and local economy still in flux and tax revenues from the initial coronavirus remain unclear, Fresno’s City Council approved a 90-day continuation of funding at the same levels as fiscal year 2019-2020.
However, Brand’s principal argument – that 30 years of tax revenue locked away in a lockbox – would force Fresno to sacrifice its primary obligation of ensuring the public safety has swiftly been validated through the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, even as Fresno continues to battle an appeal on a Superior Court victory validating Measure P’s defeat, the notion of placing a second-try parks tax on the ballot was still a political reality as recent as the March 3 primary election.
Proponents floated a measure that would split tax revenues 50/50 between public safety (evenly split between Fresno’s fire and police departments) and an expansive parks program.
A white paper on the renewed, now-abandoned effort written by Measure P proponents detailed in prescriptive terms how the parks share of tax revenue was to be spent.
The public safety element, arguably the more complicated of the two, was left uncharacteristically vague.
Brand proved himself right to call out the tax measure’s flaws.
He was right to point out that it would put Fresno in the position of firing cops and firefighters in an economic squeeze while spending lavishly on greenspace.
He was right to point out that, without the ability to seize property in south Fresno for its much-demanded parks through eminent domain, Fresno would sit on a large slush fund of largely unusable cash.
Which brings me to a query I posed to Brand himself weeks ago, while sitting in the office of his chief spokesman, Mark Standriff.
With so much money sitting unused due to inability to acquire land, would the Fresno Police Department see massive staffing cuts only to see those ex-cops return as the opulently-funded Fresno Park Rangers?
How about the creation of a multi-ladder Fresno Park Fire Suppression team with hefty overtime pay?
Brand chuckled, but demurred.
Ultimately, the competing interests to improve Fresno from north-to-south still require big thinking – not just of vision but execution.
Brand understood the latter and used it to smother flawed ideas, all for the sake of solvency and long-term economic security.
With his budget reserve to dig the fine city out of a pandemic-driven economic collapse, hopefully we’ll remember that lesson.