Open your wallet, Mr. and Mrs. Fresno. City Hall wants your money.
The reason is simple: Quality-of-life assets are expensive. They’re also in short supply or considerable disrepair in our fair city.
All of which should make the looming 2018 political season most interesting.
Let’s begin with Fresno’s new Parks Master Plan. The 300-page draft document is now circulating through the community, generating public comment.
“Fresno’s future is bright,” the plan states. “With a rebounding economy, new high speed rail connectivity, anticipated population growth, and a development framework for creating strong neighborhoods, it is an appropriate time for the City of Fresno to strengthen its public amenities. Parks are a valuable resource to the public – contributing to Fresno’s environment, economy, beauty, and public, and this PMP (Parks Master Plan) positions parks as central to the City’s future.”
It’s no secret that Fresno’s parks system has a less than stellar national reputation. For starters, we don’t have enough green space. Much of what we do have is falling apart. And many corners of the city have no public park space at all.
The plan delivers much to chew on. Here are seven key findings from the executive summary:
1.) Maintenance: “To address existing park system daily maintenance and repair operations, an increased annual funding of nearly $5 million is needed, with an extra $10,000 – $15,000 need for each additional acre added to the park system. This does not include any capital improvement or lifecycle costs.”
2.) Lifecycle Replacements: “Deferred investment of approximately $112 million is needed to adequately fund critical lifecycle replacement costs. If PMP recommended capital improvements of roughly $50 million are made, lifecycle costs may be reduced to approximately $80 million.”
3.) Park Acreage: “Park land needs to increase by 1,113 acres to meet the General Plan overall level of service goals for Fresno’s current population, and by 1,769 acres to meet recreation needs of Fresno’s future population” in 2035.
4.) Poor Condition Parks: “Fresno’s park and open space system is dominated by parks in poor condition that suffer from lack of investment, lack of adequate maintenance, and public safety concerns due to inappropriate activities.”
5.) Park Deserts: “Significant areas of Fresno have limited or no parks, creating ‘park deserts,’ especially notable in portions of Districts 1, 5, and 7.”
6.) Limited Park Land in Urban Areas: “There is insufficient park land to meet the needs of a growing Fresno, and a critical need for new park development in higher density urbanized areas that have extremely limited land available for new parks.”
7.) Limited Resources: Parks Department staff “operate as best they can with limited available resources to provide unique experiences to the community.”
The plan eventually will make its way to the City Council for approval. Council members on Oct. 12 got a quick look at this remarkable vision for Fresno’s green space.
Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd told the council that the plan describes in detail “what this community is going to have to grapple with as far as the balance between maintaining what we have and building new” parks.
Rudd said the plan is blunt. For example, he said, “the recommendation is that Quigley is in such a state of disrepair that it would probably be best just to scrape the site and start over.”
Another challenge posed by the plan is finding open land for new parks in older, highly urbanized parts of the city.
Said Rudd: “Which shopping centers do we take out, which neighborhoods do we take out to build a park? Where do we find the land?”
The plan envisions the construction of new parks, the rehabilitation of established parks and a secure funding stream to pay for adequate maintenance of everything. Then there’s the human side – the serious need for more staff and resources to provide the services and programs that people love.
Rudd noted that the current council and Mayor Lee Brand (himself a council member for eight years) are justifiably proud of tackling tough policy issues and refusing to “kick the can down the road…. Unfortunately, I think this is more like a 55-gallon drum.”
Much of the parks budget comes from the general fund. There’s the problem. The parks master plan foresees a huge and immediate infusion of cash. The general fund, if it’s lucky, grows modestly in size year to year. Far more than half of the money that lands in the general fund goes to police and fire.
Fresnans love parks. They love public safety even more.
“The community is going to have to have a very frank conversation about what these priorities are and what the future investments will be,” Rudd said. “… We are optimistic that when this plan gets rolled out, we as a community will come together and realize that is not something that we can fix today and it is not something that can be fixed by simply readjusting priorities within our budget – because there’s just not enough in that budget.”
Much of this is old hat to Fresnans who have followed the parks drama over the decades. For instance, we’re still looking at about two decades of payments on the parks bonds from the Alan Autry era.
But I sense this new parks master plan is the long-awaited catalyst that gets City Hall talking seriously about new taxes to fund a lot more than just parks. We need more cops. We need more police resources. We need more firefighters. We need more fire resources. We need better roads. We need more infrastructure. We need better-maintained infrastructure.
There’s no end to what we need.
Steve Brandau was the first council member to speak on Oct. 12. He gave us a hint of the big issue coming out of City Hall in the first half of 2018.
“I was at a conservancy meeting last Wednesday, San Joaquin River Conservancy,” Brandau said. “I represent the City of Fresno on that board. And I get there and on the agenda was ‘City of Fresno parks.’ I go, ‘What’s this?’ Sometimes one of our Parks people comes in and makes a presentation.
“But really it was a pitch for a bond to be put on the ballot. I was a little put-off that they made the presentation there prior to coming before council because we need to make decisions based on the amount of money coming in. One weird thing that they said – they went to the mayor of Fresno, and Mayor Brand said he’s not going to take the lead on that but that he would likely defer to former Mayor Swearengin. I’ve been asked to meet with that group that wants to put a bond measure on the ballot.
“I’m going to try to stay open-minded while I do that because of the huge needs that we have in our parks. It’s hard for me to talk about being open-minded for a tax. The need is so great. We have to do something. I’m going to be open to that. But I’ve heard there are other bond opportunities for the City of Fresno.”
With that “other bond opportunities” dangling in the air, Brandau left the dais to attend to other business. Before he left, Brandau noted that the possible parks bond measure would involve a boost to the local sales tax similar to the popular Measure C transportation tax.
I find it hard to believe city officials could muster support for putting a parks sales tax on the ballot while failing to address the funding challenges for public safety and infrastructure.
I’m guessing Council Member Oliver Baines is thinking the same way. Think back to August 2014. That’s when Baines teased the public with thoughts of Measure R, a sales tax hike to generate tens of millions of dollars every year for everything mentioned above.
“R” as in Restoration.
As Brandau prepared to leave the dais on Oct. 12, Council President Clint Olivier gave him the verbal needle. Legalize recreational marijuana in Fresno, Olivier said, and the general fund would have all the money it needs.
I know City Hall. Measure R and marijuana wouldn’t be enough.