“Infrastructure” is the hot topic in Fresno politics.
I’m talking about the infrastructure of capital projects. I’m talking about the infrastructure of operations.
And in the end, I bet we’re all talking about the infrastructure of the family.
Let’s begin with Mayor Lee Brand’s State of the City address on Wednesday at the Convention Center. I wasn’t able to attend, but City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff was kind enough to send me a copy of the Mayor’s speech.
Brand might as well be named “Mr. Infrastructure.” He understands that a complex system such as a municipal government needs all parts working together to be effective.
I’ll give you the perfect example of the way Brand’s mind works. His written speech runs to eight pages. He had before him on Wednesday an audience estimated at 900. His task was to keep everyone awake by highlighting with style the blessings and challenges of America’s 34th biggest city.
Brand’s fourth paragraph in a speech of more than 100 paragraphs was this: “We raised our credit rating from junk bond status to an A+ rating that will save Fresno’s ratepayers and taxpayers over $40 million over 22 years.”
A mayor who views Wall Street bond ratings as a riveting opener is a mayor who’s all business.
Most of Brand’s speech was cut from the same cloth.
“Recharge Fresno, the largest infrastructure project in our history, just completed construction of our new Southeast Surface Water Treatment Facility – on time and on budget,” Brand said. “And we finally opened Fulton Street to vehicle traffic after decades of debate and delay. My staff said we’d be lucky to get 1,000 people at the grand opening – and we ended up with three times that many, and over 12,000 at the party afterwards.”
Brand said he is nearly halfway to fulfilling his 2016 campaign promise of creating 10,000 new jobs by 2027. A new 200-room hotel will soon be built next to the Convention Center. The Fresno Grizzlies are a more secure tenant at Chukchansi Park thanks to new ownership and a revised lease.
The Mayor went on to trumpet the City Hall-State Center Community College District alliance that will produce a new Fresno City College campus in West Fresno and relocate 160 SCCCD headquarters jobs to Fulton Corridor.
City Hall is going like gangbusters to cut the red tape for entrepreneurs, Brand said. The Police Department is moving with the same vigor to bust gangs. The Mayor and Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero will co-chair a homeless initiative called “Street 2 Home Fresno County.” The FresnoGO mobile app has 20,000 users.
“But there’s still a lot of hard work ahead,” Brand said. “Remember – if we want to make a difference, we have to work to make a difference.” (emphasis in the text)
The Mayor didn’t shrink from identifying what that hard work will involve.
“Our economic base is insufficient, with 30% of our population in poverty and our per capita income at half the amount of other similar size cities in California,” Brand said. “We also have major infrastructure issues, totaling over $1 billion, that cannot continue to be ‘kicked down the road.’ These problems have defined Fresno’s narrative for too many years, and they include: 1) generational poverty; 2) high unemployment; and 3) high crime.
“I reject this narrative and will not be a caretaker administration. I will always set the bar high.”
Fresno has 525,000 people. Simply put, we’re inefficient when it comes to maximizing the potential of our human capital. The infrastructure isn’t there.
How do we fix things? Brand’s State of the City address gives an outline. The Mayor will try to fill in the picture at Thursday’s City Council meeting.
His idea is to have the council place on the November general election ballot a half-cent sales tax proposal that would fund additional parks and police/fire services. The Mayor has scheduled a Monday morning news conference at City Hall to flesh out the proposal.
Tim Orman, Brand’s chief of staff, writes in a report to the council: “The Mayor is bringing forth this measure because he truly believes this is (in) the best interests of our community. Crime levels in the City are dramatically higher than (in) other cities in California and the nation. Our fire staffing levels are 37% below the state average…. Many of our parks are run down and are in need of significant investments for daily maintenance, upgrades to worn out equipment and buildings, and modernization. We need to invest in building new parks and green space in our City.
“The Mayor also strongly believes that this measure would produce the significant investment needed in both public safety and parks to take the City of Fresno to the next level.”
The measure would produce an estimated $44 million annually. The amount would no doubt grow as Fresno’s economy grows.
Half of the money would be spent on public safety, half on parks. The tax would sunset in 15 years. Of course, there would be nothing to stop voters in 15 years from extending the tax.
If approved in November, according to Orman’s report, the measure would boost Fresno’s sales tax to 8.475%, tied with Reedley and Selma for second highest in Fresno County. Sanger’s sales tax is 8.725%.
There’s much to chew on between now and Thursday. There will be even more to discuss between Thursday and November should the council approve Brand’s request.
For now I’ll make just two points.
First, we all get it when it comes to infrastructure in a democracy. We need good streets. We need good sewers. We need good schools. We need effective police and fire protection. We need green space. We need fair rules impartially enforced.
Fresno for many decades spent immense sums of taxpayer money on providing such a public infrastructure so the people could make the most of their freedom. The public infrastructure wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t all that bad. As the Mayor noted in his State of the City address, this infrastructure in the 1950s and 1960s helped produce Lee Brand.
Yet, as is made clear by the Mayor’s State of the City address and his Chief of Staff’s report, government in Fresno after all these decades and all that investment has failed to positively impact a significant portion of the population.
This has been to the detriment of the city as a whole.
Second, “family separation” is in the news these days. I think a major problem with Fresno’s governmental infrastructure program is “family separation,” in particular too many absent and irresponsible fathers.
City Hall’s notion is that spending enough money upfront on material infrastructure will automatically solve the backend problem of failed leadership in many individual families.
I’m guessing the state of public infrastructure depends on the state of family infrastructure, not the other way around.
Mayor Brand’s proposed “Parks and Public Safety Transactions and Use Tax” moves these conflicting points of view into the public arena.