The “No on P” campaign has finally come to life.
It more accurately could be dubbed the “Yes on Parks – But not this Measure” campaign.
Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fire Chief Kerri Donis and a handful of other community leaders gathered in Downtown Fresno on Thursday to tout the benefits of a sales tax boost to fund certain essential public services.
Parks is among them. So, too, is Public Safety – police and fire.
To get there, the leaders said, the first step is to defeat on Nov. 6 what they called the well-intentioned but seriously shortsighted Measure P. The initiative would raise hundreds of millions of dollars over its initial 30-year span to fund improved parks and various arts programs, but would generate nothing for Police and Fire departments decimated by the Great Recession (police) or decades of relative indifference at City Hall (fire).
The leaders, speaking at One Putt Broadcasting on Fulton Street, essentially said Measure P is flawed by the sin of gluttony – i.e. excess and its attendant woes.
To a person, the leaders said voters in the Nov. 6 general election must embrace a fundamental virtue of self-government in a pluralist society – balance. They said that means sending without rancor Measure P to the dustbin of history, then directing all sides to hammer out a more egalitarian sales tax measure that would fund both parks and public safety and, thus, best serve the interests of the entire city.
I’ll let the various players speak for themselves, then add one observation at the end.
Said Mayor Brand: “I’ll be the first to say we need help in our parks. No one here is against parks. But we need a balanced approach. (Measure P) totally neglects public safety – police and fire.”
Brand said all sorts of Public Safety challenges are being ignored by Measure P – personnel, infrastructure, equipment and homelessness, to name but a few. He said it’s unrealistic to say City Hall can simply wait until 2020 and return to voters with a Public Safety sales tax.
“The odds of two consecutive large sales tax (boosts) are slim and none,” Brand said. “Parks are important, but they’re not the only need that we have in the general fund.”
The Mayor was far from enamored with the proposed citizens advisory board whose powers over Measure P funds and the direction of city policy would take Fresno into unchartered territory.
Measure P, Brand said, “creates an Arts and Parks Commission that is really not accountable to the people who voters elected in(to office) and gives it expansive powers. I would call it a planning commission on steroids…. So, again, we’re not here to oppose parks. We’re here to oppose a measure that is flawed and over prioritizes parks and neglects major parts of our budget.”
Chief Dyer: “There’s no one standing up here today that’s opposed to having more parks, or existing parks beautified. But we don’t believe that Measure P is the appropriate avenue to take for any of us. It’s not good for Fresno today and it’s certainly not good for Fresno over the next 30 years.
“There’s no question that parks have significant needs within our community. But so do other city departments, to include police and fire. We are still operating in the police department with 200 fewer personnel than we had in 2009. That includes police officers, dispatchers, crime scene technicians and community service officers. The equipment that we have in service today has aged. In fact, last week we had lost communication between our dispatchers and our police officers because we have a failing communication infrastructure system.
“Two hundred fewer personnel in the last nine years, yet the call volume and the work load for our employees have gone up dramatically. We receive somewhere around 3,000 calls a day into dispatch, 40% of those to be 911 calls. The state calls for those 911 calls to answered, 95% of them, in 15 seconds or less. We are lucky to have 75% of those calls answered under the required time. And it’s not uncommon to have 911 calls, a caller on the other end with an emergency need, be on hold for six or seven minutes. Response times by our officers to emergency calls and life-threatening calls have been delayed because of the decrease in personnel. Investigative follow-up on our caseload – domestic violence, sex crimes, elder abuse, financial crimes – has all been backlogged as a result of the shortage of personnel.
“So, we have to ask ourselves as citizens in this community: Are we OK with overfunding parks and underfunding police and fire? That’s the question we all need to ask ourselves. I believe we can do better as a city. I’m asking the citizens of Fresno to vote no on Measure P, and let us come back – supporters of police and fire and parks – and come up with some form of avenue that we can all take and agree upon that’s going to address all of the needs in our city and not just parks.”
Chief Donis: “I want to echo comments that have been made here. We all support parks improvements but not at the expense of other departments, and police and fire.
“I will share with you that your Fire Department has the same staffing levels as it did in 1980 – 1980 staffing levels is where we are today. We have 77 firefighters on duty each day. Yet, our population in our community has grown over 200,000 more and our call volume has doubled. The challenge is the need to invest more in public safety, particularly in your Fire Department and Police Department, so they can respond to emergencies in a timely way.
“Chief Dyer spoke about the challenges of responding to emergencies. Fire is in the same situation. We have equipment that is aging out. We have resources and extractors – our personal equipment extractors are washing devices that are going to protect our firefighters from those carcinogens and cancers, and we can’t afford to purchase those things. We have to do better than that.
“There is a better approach than just one measure over the other. I think a balanced approach in the future where it supports parks and public safety is the way that our citizenry should consider and go…. Public safety is a paramount priority. So, I encourage our members of the community to vote no on P and come back again in the future with a better, balanced measure to vote on.”
Nathan Ahle, President/Chief Executive, Fresno Chamber of Commerce: “Our organization strongly encourages a compromise, a measure that would bring forth both public safety needs and parks needs. It’s been said time and time again, this is not about being about for or against the parks in our community. We all agree that Fresno’s parks need work. Something has to be done. But that being said, it cannot be done in an unbalanced way…. We would also encourage that this measure be defeated in November and then come back with a compromise, a broad-based solution that will address both needs.”
James Scoggins, Vice President, Fresno City Firefighters Association: “Our Firefighters Association also encourages the people of Fresno to vote no on P. One of the issues that we have consistently with our staffing levels is our workload. We have some of the busiest, hardest-working firefighters in the state of California, if not the United States.”
At the same time, Scoggins said, the Fire Department is understaffed and underfunded. The key, he said, is a comprehensive solution.
“As you can see behind me,” Scoggins said, “it’s not just the employees, it’s not just the Mayor’s Office (taking this stand on P). It’s all of us coming together and saying we can work something out to where everyone benefits – police, fire, the business community and parks. At this time, the Fresno City Firefighters Association is asking folks to vote no on P.”
Damon Kurtz, President, Fresno Police Officers Association: “We also encourage our community to vote no on P. Like everyone up here, we’re not against parks. We think parks are an important component to the community. It’s important for those of us in public safety and law enforcement to have a place for outreach to our youth. But we also have to have the resources for the Police Department, for the Fire Department, for the community to be able to do that kind of outreach. We have read the fine print in the measure. And one of the issues with this measure is that it vows that money (levels currently allocated for Parks) from the general fund cannot now be allocated elsewhere. What that means is when there is a recession in the future, which everyone says is coming, we’ll be laying off firefighters, we’ll be laying off police officers and other city employees. But we’ll still be funding parks. That doesn’t make sense to us when we’re still rebuilding from the last recession. We’re still more than 40 officers short of where we were in 2009 and several hundred civilian employees. It just does not make sense. For that reason, we encourage you to vote no on P. We do support the idea of parks, but we need a more balanced approach.”
Darius Assemi, President, Granville Homes: “Most of you know I love parks. We’ve built many parks in this community. We have funded parks in the Cultural Arts District in Downtown Fresno. But in my opinion, this is a premature and irresponsible measure. There is a better way.”
Assemi said a measure that funds one city department – parks, in Measure P’s case – to the tune of $38 million-plus per year for 30 years – is excessive.
“We need to come together and find out what all the needs of our community are,” Assemi said. “Our No. 1 priority should be public safety. That is government’s first responsibility. More parks without public safety becomes a trap. I’m voting no on (P) and I urge everybody to vote no on (P) and come back and work with our Mayor and law enforcement to come up with a comprehensive plan.”
Now for my one observation.
At the heart of the fight over Measure P is the concept of “goodness” in public policy. Doing good is the main thing these days. Doing good – and being perceived by others as doing good – will probably remain the main thing far into the future. Which is great. We all like to see video of grandparents enjoying public green space with their grandchildren. Such video no doubt resonates with voters who want to view themselves as doing good.
By contrast, many activists in Fresno have managed to separate the concept of “goodness” from what the men and women of Public Safety do on a daily basis. This is particularly true of the Police Department. And it’s my experience that some of these activists who view police with a jaundiced eye, who see the men and women in blue as part of an over-militarized organization incessantly bent on sending primarily the disadvantaged to prison at a too early age, are among Measure P’s strongest supporters.
The Measure P thinking: Green space combined with social and arts programs will solve our social ills.
What’s odd is that these same activists also insist that the Police Department take on roles far removed from the old arrest-and-lock’em-up policing model. And the Fresno Police Department has responded to the changing times. The best example is the heroic partnership between officers and social workers in dealing with the homeless and troubled citizens with mental health challenges, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
Do we want Fresno’s police officers to be the firm, courageous yet sensitive first responders to all types of incidents where “goodness” and threats to public order come into conflict? If the answer is yes, then why don’t we pay for it? I gather that’s what Mayor Brand is asking in part when he opposes Measure P as unbalanced public policy.