Fresno · Politics

In hotly-contested Fresno City Council race, candidates tackle the issues

The two candidates looking to succeed Fresno City Council President Paul Caprioglio appeared on the same stage on Tuesday night as they faced off in a candidate’s forum hosted by Fresno State’s student government.

Nathan Alonzo, the Director of External Affairs for Caglia Environmental, and Tyler Maxwell, an aide to Fresno City Council member Nelson Esparza have been running for the seat since the spring.

The moderators – members of Fresno State’s Associated Students, Inc. – asked the candidates questions on various topics such as homelessness, DACA, home ownership and gun violence. 

Here’s a look at some of the topics covered:

Please identify how you will increase city revenues without tapping into other non-government income sources?

Tyler Maxwell: I think that there has been a huge missed potential with our current administration as far as where a lot of our funding is coming from. Most people here are over the age of 18. That means that you pay state and federal taxes every single year. A lot of that money goes towards grant programs for specific things like homelessness and housing and infrastructure. I don’t think we have the grant writers that we need at city hall to make sure that we’re receiving that money back into our local community. Cities like Bakersfield, Merced, other Central Valley communities are applying for those grants and essentially getting our tax dollars to pay for their issues. We need to be more assertive and more aggressive about going after those tax dollars that we’ve already paid into. I think we need more grant writers at city hall. Bring in some more of them on board. And making sure that we’re collecting the money that we’ve already paid into.

Nathan Alonzo: Well I certainly think the government has a part to play in it. We obviously have a deficiency in the development department personnel that we have that go over plans that help streamline the process for business to grow here in Fresno. We obviously have a deficiency in the number of code enforcement personnel, the number of fire inspection personnel that help approve plans and help businesses get up and running and make sure that businesses that are operating are operating properly.

That’s only half the issue. The other half of the issue is that we as a city haven’t been business friendly. We have a development department, we have a plan check department and code enforcement that many times plays a major part in making sure that business doesn’t come here, and the businesses that are here don’t stay in business.

I had friends who are trying to start a one or two person operation – and trying to get through the plan and permitting office at City Hall is probably one of the worst experiences they’ve ever had. And what did they do? They threw up their hands and said I’m not starting this business in Fresno. They went across Willow Ave. and started their business in Clovis. They went in there the first day with their plans, and they walked out with technical help and their business licence. So we have to do a better job of streamlining our process on the government end and to make sure that we have a robust private sector that is No. 1 helping grow businesses, No. 2 helping expand the businesses that we have here.

We keep talking about bringing the next thousand or two-thousand job employer here to the community, but we need to make sure that we are helping to make more robust the one person shop, the tenant-employee business, the medium sized business, Fresno businesses need to be focused on as well as being part of the strategy of bringing major employers here in the community.

We need to incentivize, and we need to provide the conditions for a diverse economy so that we’re not so reliant on healthcare, government and the agricultural industry. We need to provide incentives so that we can grow the tech industry, the logistics industry, manufacturing – that’s the Fresno of tomorrow, and government’s a part of it, but government can’t get in the way of private sector development and growth.

How do you think your experience makes you unique in this race?

Alonzo: Well I think that when we look at this race and when we look at our community in general, what makes me unique in this race is I – like so many of the students here at Fresno State – I grew up with nothing. I have had to fight. I have had to follow the example of my parents. I have had to get creative. I have had to delay payments. I have had to do all of the things that so many of you have to do in order to get ahead. Thanks to a lot of the sacrifices, an outstanding example of my parents, my family, and thanks to the graciousness of so many of my mentors throughout my career, I’ve been able to make it this far.

I’ve had extensive experience on the policymaking end, having served as an aide to a state senator and being their advisor on issues like water, air quality, higher education, K-12 education. We were able to pass and get signed into law a number of very important pieces of legislation that have helped dramatically the quality of the people that live not only in this district, but the people throughout the region. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector helping to advocate for small business and medium sized business for economic growth. I’m proud of the work that we did here at the economic level and helping to pass legislation like the rental housing improvement act, that makes sure that people that live in rental housing and apartments throughout the city of Fresno live in dignified conditions. We were proud partners of that, and we helped lobby our city council and our mayor to get that passed. I’m proud of the work that I do in the private sector.

First I worked as a farmer. I know the quality of the food that makes it to your grocery store, because – number one, I picked it, and number two, I helped put it in boxes, put it in a truck that made it to your grocery store. And then I’m proud to work for a family-owned company now that’s been in this community for a century that does fantastic work and is very charitable in the actions that we take. So I think what makes me unique is the breadth of the experience that I have, the respect that I’ve earned that is unique in its own way, but in so many other ways just like the things that so many of you are going through.

Maxwell: I think it is the experience that makes me unique, experience not only as somebody that grew up in District 4, whose family has been in District 4 going back 60 years. Somebody that went to school, went to church, went to karate lessons, had potholes, had a street that hadn’t been paved since before I was born. All those experiences that people in district 4 still face today, I personally have faced them myself.

On top of the issues I told you, my family experienced substance abuse, poverty, lack of affordable housing, but it extends beyond that. I’ve served our community, the Fresno County Probation Department – I’ve served our community at the Fresno Police Department as a civilian position at the crime scene investigations. I currently serve our community at Fresno City Council where I’ve had experience in passing budgets, putting together community events, constituent work, so I know that on day one there will be no learning on the job. I’ve been knocking on doors since March of this year. I’m going to be going until March of next year and probably beyond that too.

Every house that I go to I take detailed notes on infrastructure issues, homeless encampments, I do this at every single house so that on day one, January ’21, I will have a list of every issue facing our community. I know where the dollars need to be spent. I know what the quality of life is like in the district, and I’ll be able to get to work right away.

How do you plan on fighting homelessness in District 4?

Maxwell: When I talk about homelessness, it’s not just a soundbite. for me it’s personal for the reasons I told you before. There’s going to be folks in our community that tell you homelessness is not a housing issue, and to an extent they’re right.

Homelessness boils down to a lot of things. It boils down to folks that have substance abuse issues. It boils down to folks that have mental health problems, folks that we need to connect to mental health resources. It comes down to DACA students whose parents were deported and no longer have the means to put a roof over their head. It comes down to LGBTQ youth who have been disowned by their parents and have been left to find their own way out on the streets.

But to think for a second that this doesn’t boil down to a housing issue is asinine. When both of my parents overcame their addictions and were able to get a decent paying job, we still were not able to afford an apartment. So we need to do things, and it’s a two pronged approach. Number one, we need to tackle the issue with the current homeless. And yes, there are going to be homeless folks that don’t want help. That shouldn’t preclude us from trying our best. That is our job as public servants. We need to make sure that we incentivize developers to build affordable housing here in the city of Fresno. We have the ability to advocate for up to 90 percent tax credits for folks willing to develop affordable housing here in the city of Fresno. We need more housing, period.

We have an artificially high rent rate. It’s artificially high how much houses cost. We need to bring that price down, but if we want to get serious about tackling homelessness, and I think the most important aspect of this, and I think one of the most overlooked is focusing on folks who aren’t homeless yet. Those are young people, children, students whose parents faced homelessness, faced drug and substance abuse, faced poverty, those kids. If we don’t provide them the resources they need, they’re going to be next generation’s homeless, so we need to be doing our best to connect them to career technical education, workforce development, and making sure they have the opportunity to attend college if that’s what they want to do.

Alonzo: So when it comes to homelessness, here are the facts. I’m going to try to not bifurcate the issue. When it comes to homelessness, there are over 3,700 homeless individuals in the city of Fresno. Fresno PD made over 5,000 contacts with them last year – 1,152 of them are unsheltered. We don’t have the adequate bed space and shelter space to be able to mandate that they move along and there is no camping, and that they are not set up where they are.

So number one, we need to add shelter space, and we need to add adequate bedding to be able to help these individuals to get off the street, especially when we talk about times like the ones that we have coming up. We have Fresnans out there when it’s bitterly cold that are going to be out in the elements because we don’t have adequate shelter space or beds to be able to help put them in. What we are dealing with preeminently, and you can talk to the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care and you can talk to a lot more non-profit leaders like [Poverello House], like the Rescue Mission, others that deal with homelessness, we are talking about substance abuse and mental health.

Until we can help these individuals who are homeless and unsheltered access substance abuse and mental health treatment, we are going to be building housing, and we’re not going to be able to help get these people off the street, out of our freeways and out of our neighborhoods and towards services.

Substance abuse, mental health, housing, but then after that we have to talk about what happens when somebody gets clean, sober and housed. That’s where the second chance comes in, and that’s where we have to take educational opportunities, specific job training and help them get their life back in order. We have to help somebody achieve a second chance. Our state a long time ago did us a huge disservice by closing down mental health institutions. That was the first step of helping to create what is now an issue that isn’t just a Fresno issue. Go to any community around the state and you can see the inhumanity of what’s happening now. So substance abuse, mental health, the housing and then shelter space element of it, but then also the educational and the second chance element of it are important. And if we want to talk about the housing prices and what we can do about it, that’s one other subject we can get to, and I’m here to talk about it.

What is your plan to make home ownership affordable in Fresno?

Alonzo: One of the biggest issues that we have now, and I’m sure that you’ve noticed it if you have driven anywhere around our community, once you cross Willow Ave., and once you look north of River Park, is that you have monumental growth in Madera County when it comes to Riverstone and Tesoro Viejo – 120,000 people will be living north of the river here pretty soon. Homes in Clovis are flying off the shelves, and we can’t seem to keep up. We can’t seem to compete. One of the biggest issues that we have is that we have limited our ability to grow.

I understand that we need to grow responsibly. We need to incentivize and we need to help provide our private sector community with reasons to want to invest in infill. Infill’s important because it helps revitalize the heart of our city, helps revitalize older neighborhoods. It has the opportunity to bring affordable and market rate housing. Our conversation can’t just be about affordable housing, it has to be about market-rate housing because you need people with disposable income. You need people who are able to go to the shops and the community. You need people that are willing to buy cars and pay that sales tax that is associated with buying a car.

It needs to be a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in infill opportunities, but not everybody wants to live in an infill community, and not everybody wants to be told where they can develop. So because of that we’ve seen folks go into other municipalities to develop single family homes. We need to re-encourage single family development here in the city of Fresno, and that means that we have to take a good look at what current Councilman Luis Chavez is doing in reopening the general plan and re-prioritizing how we’re developing, especially on the single-family end. So we need to bring a lot of those folks that have left the community back home so that they could their homes here.

Once we have people competing against each other in infill and in single-family, mutli-family, we will see people start dropping prices, and we will see homes be built at a price-point to where recent college grads can buy their first home at under $300,000, because right now if you don’t have $300,000, you better show up with cash to buy your next home because the market of anywhere between $200,000-$300,000 is vicious right now.

We need to do a better job of competing, period. And that means also investing in multi-family housing on the affordable and the market rate throughout our community so that a student can go and buy their first condo, buy their first home at a modest price. Build equity and then continue escalating in the value of their home and in the kind of home that they own.

But we need to open up the general plan just like current Councilman Luis Chavez is doing. I think it’s a fantastic idea. That’s the first step in doing something important to be able to alleviate this issue. But we need to be competitive again and reopen the general plan and bring development especially on the residential end back to Fresno.

Maxwell: I think it boils down to basic economics, supply and demand. The more housing that we have in the city of Fresno, the cheaper housing becomes in the city of Fresno. So we need to do our best to make sure that we have more housing throughout our city. We’re 115 square miles. I don’t think we’re at any shortage of space. But it’s more nuanced than that. We need to be creative as councilmembers. We need to be advocates. We need to do our part to help advocate for developers to get those up to 90 percent tax credits to develop affordable housing in the city of Fresno, to incentivize them to do infill development, which will be cheaper than you’re three bedroom homes in North or East Fresno.

But it also boils down to what kind of jobs are we offering people in the city of Fresno if they can’t afford a home, if they can’t afford 15-20 percent down. It’s more than just a housing issue. It’s a wage issue. So I think we also need to do a better job when it comes to what kind of jobs are we building and what kind of jobs are we attracting to the city of Fresno. The current administration and our city have a history of using economic incentives and tax incentives to bring certain businesses to Fresno. I say that if we’re going to continue that practice, we need to make sure that these are jobs that people could make a living wage off of, provide for a family and afford a home.

So it comes down to more housing, advocating for developers and making sure that the people of Fresno have good paying jobs. Right now we don’t have a diverse economy. People, they come here. They get educated. Or they go out to school in a different city, and they don’t come back. That’s because we don’t have the jobs right now that are attracting them that are going to bring their tax dollars back. And so we need to work on both of those fronts to make sure that we have affordable housing in Fresno.

Alonzo: I actually wanted to add something when it came to housing as well from my perspective. In our family we were trying to buy our first home, we were looking for something that was affordable, that was in a safe neighborhood, that had amenities around it, and that allowed us to stay in our neighborhood even if we wanted to upsize our home.

And the conversation that we had in our household is not unlike the conversation that so many other people around Fresno have in the fact that there’s not the available housing stock. But we can’t just incentivize people to just build, build, build. We need to incentivize the appropriate amount of building in being responsible. Our district is actually one of the districts that has the highest rate of housing growth within the city of Fresno. In our easternmost extreme we have, I would say, probably about 1,200 homes in current development right now. So we are building on some end when it comes to that, but we are also failing, as Tyler said, to diversify our economy.

After multiple mass shootings in the last week, what is your stance on gun laws?

Maxwell: It should shake everybody in this room that in a little over a decade we’ve had three mass shootings right here in our hometown if you think back to Marcus Wesson, if you think back just a couple of years ago to Kori Muhammad and now two days ago to the shooting in our very own home District 4. There is a gun violence problem in our community that needs a solution.

The city of Fresno has multiple tools in their public safety toolkit. The number one will always be the Fresno Police Department. I’ve had the honor of personally working for that department, and I’ve seen how stretched thin they are when it comes to man power, when it comes to resources. When there’s a big incident, all their resources are allocated to that call, and that means that a lot of other calls go unattended to. That they don’t have the time to do neighborhood policing, or have a coffee with neighbors, or get to know the people that they are putting their lives on the line to protect every day. So I think number one is we have to invest more to our police department to make sure that they have the resources and the manpower to be able to do their job to protect the community. But I think it’s more nuanced than that. I think it goes a step further. I think there are a lot of private organizations out there that have proven to do a good job in reducing gun violence throughout the Central Valley. I think we need to start taking a serious look at partnering with some of those folks.

And I think it comes down to something as simple as investing more into our parks and our green space. District 4 especially has an extreme lack of green space. There’s not a part east of Fowler Ave. in District 4. Study-after-study will show that when families and children have a place to go play after school, during the summer, that violence in those neighborhoods will decrease drastically. Not just petty crime, not just property crime, but violent crime too.

So we need to stop thinking about everything as an issue for the police to solve and start looking at private entities and other creative ways of reducing gun violence such as investing more into green space in the city of Fresno.

Alonzo: I think we have to look at the root causes of what the issue is, which is that we have a substance abuse and we have a mental health crisis not only in Fresno, but throughout California, throughout America. We need supportive services that are going to help individuals who in many cases are crying out for help, and for those that we can identify that need mental health and substance abuse treatment.

We have done a woeful job as a state and as a county of addressing mental health and substance abuse issues. It has led to homelessness. It leads to violence, not just gun violence, but also domestic violence. Our law enforcement personnel here in the city of Fresno is strapped as far as what they can do. As someone who has family in law enforcement, a number of them in agencies throughout our city and our county, and as someone who is very close with our department now, I see what they go through.

Police officers have to act as mediators, counselors, substance abuse and mental health triage personnel, and they have to respond to some of the worst parts of humanity. So to put another charge to them without providing them with additional resources and without additional personnel is only going to exacerbate the issue. We have major cities throughout America that have banned guns, and there are still over 300 shootings a week. So we need to get to the root causes of what the issue is at hand when it comes to gun violence, which is substance abuse and mental health.

And it’s something that isn’t just happening in certain zip codes or in certain neighborhoods throughout the city. It’s happening to students that sit in classrooms. It’s happening to the affluent. It’s happening to our low income communities. It happens in every walk of life. So we need to invest in mental health and substance abuse, and we need to make sure that our police officers have the personnel numbers and the resources to be able to assess and to be able to respond to a lot of these issues before an atrocity happens. 

Daniel Gligich
Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.