Fresno Parks More Important Than Public Safety? Fresno Faces Tough Decisions

Fresno for Parks goes full steam ahead for November vote, while Mayor Lee Brand is left trying to put the pieces together so police and fire receive the needed funding.

Here’s a tip for Fresnans trying to wrap their minds around the unusual dynamics of the upcoming Parks sales tax measure.

View the measure as a possible replay of the first attempt to extend the Measure C transportation sale tax.


In a nutshell, that attempt in 2002 failed miserably. The coalition that defeated the initial extension effort was full of political opposites. Measure C advocates went back to the drawing board and came up with a new plan more in tune with widespread voter preferences. The second Measure C extension effort sailed to easy victory in 2006.

No single transportation interest got everything it wanted. All of the important transportation interests got much of what they needed. Fresno (and the county) was better for the compromise.

I have it on good authority that the Administration of Mayor Lee Brand is well aware of the Measure C scenario. It’s a safe bet that Brand is counting on a something similar in 2018 to ultimately prevail in what is shaping up as a bitter contest of visions for Fresno’s future.

Let’s begin with a look back at the Measure C renewal campaign.

Keep in mind that Fresno County in general, and Fresno in particular, suffered from major surface transportation woes in the decades after World War II. Fresno grew in a hurry to the north and to the east. Commuting on Cedar Avenue or Kings Canyon Road to the new suburbs and retail/commercial centers was torture (to the driver’s soul and to the air). State money for freeway extensions was scarce.

Voters approved the Measure C half-cent sales tax in 1986. A simple majority vote did the trick at that time. The money went a long way toward building Fresno’s current freeway system.

But the tax was good for only 20 years. Measure C advocates, knowing they might need more than one bite at the apple, decided to push for an extension in 2002. By that time, court decisions had raised the voter approval bar to a two-thirds majority.

On Nov. 5, 2002, only about 54% of Fresno County voters gave the extension a thumb’s up.

The Fresno Bee’s Jim Davis wrote on Nov. 6, 2002: “Fresno County voters concerned about sprawl and their pocketbooks slammed the brakes Tuesday on Measure C, an extension of the half-cent sales tax for roads and transportation.”

It turned out that anti-tax zealots teamed up with leftish environmentalists to beat a pro-Measure C alliance led by business interests.

Davis quoted Kevin Hall of the local Sierra Club chapter as advising civic leaders to “wake up and smell the traffic.” Hall added: “I look forward to working for a good Measure C. I think the voters sent a very clear message to local leaders that they’re ready for a new direction.”

The Bee’s Russell Clemings in 2011 wrote an excellent review of Measure C events since that 2002 election night debacle. The main thrust of Clemings’ story was lower-than-expected proceeds from the Measure C extension. Of course, Fresno County in 2011 was still feeling the hangover from the Great Recession. Measure C revenues have since rebounded.

The lasting value of Clemings’ story is his analysis of how Measure C advocates retooled their campaign plan, resulting in the successful 2006 extension (20 years) that got almost 78% of the vote.

Clemings wrote: “In early 2005, time was running out before the original measure’s June 30, 2007 expiration. So the Fresno Council of Governments – the county’s transportation planning agency – appointed a steering committed and told it to hammer out a consensus that would attract the needed two-thirds vote.

“Organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Valley Taxpayers Coalition had representatives on the committee, along with elected officials and business leaders. They hired a consultant who ran a poll and told them what Fresno County voters wanted – things such as well-maintained streets, more bike paths and better public transit to reduce congestion and air pollution.

“The committee followed the polling data slavishly. The result was a something-for-everybody spending plan….”

Clemings quoted Mark Keppler, who represented trails advocates on the committee: “Wow. A two-thirds vote is extremely hard to get, and to not only get that but to demolish it was a sign of how important the community thought Measure C was.”

(Personal note: I worked with Jim Davis and Russell Clemings for many years. They were two of The Bee’s best reporters.)

Fast forward to 2018.

The Fresno for Parks coalition is on the verge of putting a three-eighths cent sale tax measure on the November 6 general election ballot. The measure would raise well over $1 billion over the next 30 years for parks and arts projects within the City of Fresno.

That’s a huge amount of money, all of it earmarked for a parks system that belongs to the City of Fresno and, by extension, the 525,000 people who are the city.

But City of Fresno operations consist of a lot more than just Parks. And those operations dependent to varying degrees on the general fund – Police, Fire, Public Works and Code Enforcement in addition to Parks – also could use more money to better serve the public.

Sales tax measures are extremely hard to pass. Should the Fresno for Parks measure succeed in November, what are the chances of another such measure – say, for Public Safety – clearing the two-thirds voter hurdle in the near future? I’d say slim to none.

Simply put, will Fresno voters on Nov. 6 decide it’s time to turn the City of Fresno into a parks-centric operation? Or will they decide Fresno for Parks, by wanting everything for itself, is actually pursuing undemocratic ends?

It’s my educated guess that Mayor Brand is counting on Fresno for Parks being brought back to reality by over-extension of its ambition – Victory Disease, if you will.

The scenario would go like this: The Parks measure fails in November because too many of Fresno’s vital public interests are left in the cold, thus creating an opposing alliance too powerful for Fresno for Parks’ kids-centered messaging to overcome; broad-based public pressure demands a compromise “Restoration” sales tax measure in 2020 (perhaps a half-cent, like Measure C); this would be a “general fund” tax requiring only 50%-plus-1 voter approval; the proceeds would benefit police, fire, parks and other pivotal general fund services.

The result, in the Mayor’s view: A better Fresno for all.

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