Fresno Mayor Lee Brand rolled out his early idea for a new sales tax in an interview Tuesday with GV Wire.
Though he didn’t name it such, you might call it “Triple-P” — a 0.75% hike on the November 2020 ballot raising about $69 million annually for public safety, parks, and public works.
The tax, as envisioned by Brand, would be divided equally among those services — $23 million each —and last for 15 years. If today’s projections hold, the tax would raise more than $1 billion during its lifetime.
Mayor in Talks With 3 Councilmembers
Brand said that he is in talks with a three-member city council Parks and Public Safety Subcommittee formed last month, as well as community leaders. The council group consists of Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, and Esmeralda Soria.
“We have a ways to go,” said Brand, who isn’t seeking reelection in 2020. “But if we can get it to the ballot and passed by voters, it would be transformational for Fresno. Our current revenue isn’t sufficient to fund our needs or make Fresno the city that people want it to be.”
Reaction from two of the councilmembers on the subcommittee was cautiously positive in the wake of the 2018 Measure P parks sales tax proposal now tied up in the courts. Brand said that if the new tax is passed, the measure’s language would require the tax to supersede Measure P regardless of how the courts rule.
“The cake on this measure is certainly not baked yet,” said Esparza, who supported Measure P. “Based on the politics we’ve seen here the last several years, public safety being included is a must. Parks being included is a must. Public works is certainly worthy of discussion.”
Esparza: Keep Special Interests on the Sidelines
With those added dimensions, Esparza said, a new sales tax would build a larger consensus. But, he added, the best course is to limit negotiations to the council and mayor.
“We’re elected to make these big decisions, these critical decisions on behalf of the city,” Esparza said. “From my perspective, it is the elected officials (who should be) talking and not necessarily being driven by the special interests.”
Soria, who also supported Measure P, said that she is focused on parks and public safety.
Brand’s Rationale for New Public Works Funding
However, Brand said Fresno’s maintenance backlog is so big for streets and sidewalks that the city can’t catch up without new funding.
“As any politician who has walked precincts can tell you, people want their sidewalks fixed and the potholes on their street repaired,” Brand said.
If a measure is put in front of voters by a council vote, state law is clear that it needs two-thirds to pass because the tax is for a specific purpose. Brand said that if the council balks, he would lead a voter signature drive to get it on the ballot.
Flexibility Sought for Dividing Public Safety Allotment
An interesting feature of Brand’s out-of-the-gate idea is that $23 million going each year to public safety wouldn’t necessarily be split equally between the police and fire departments. He said that flexibility is needed so that City Hall can budget based on police and fire needs at the time.
The mayor also said that he opposes a sales tax hike that goes to the General Fund for unspecified uses. Though the bar for voter approval is reduced to 50%-plus-one in such a scenario, Brand said that voters want to know exactly how their tax dollars will be used.
“The cake on this measure is certainly not baked yet. Based on the politics we’ve seen here the last several years, public safety being included is a must. Parks being included is a must. Public works is certainly worthy of discussion.” — Fresno City Councilman Nelson Esparza
According to Brand’s analysis, November 2020 is the city’s best opportunity for a sales-tax increase. The local ballot next March is expected to be crowded with school bond measures. And he anticipates backers of Fresno County’s Measure C transportation tax will seek an early extension in 2022.
“November 2020 is our window,” Brand said. “But whatever we come up with, we have to do polling to see if it will be successful.”
If Approved, Sales Tax Would Be 8.725%
If a 0.75% increase is approved, the combined city’s sales tax would be 8.725%. Today’s rate is 7.975% — of which 7.25% goes to the state and the remainder to Fresno County for transportation (.50%), libraries (.125%), and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo (.10%).
The sales taxes in neighboring cities are Clovis, 7.975%; Fowler, 8.975%; Madera, 8.250%; Sanger, 8.725%; and Selma, 8.475%.
California allows local governments to collect additional sales taxes of up to 3.50% with approval by voters. Santa Fe Springs, which is in Los Angeles County, has the state’s highest sales tax at 10.5%.
Measure P’s Fate Remains Unknown
Last year’s Measure P would have lasted 30 years and raised $37 annually million for parks and related programs. It faced opposition from Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer, and many in the business community. Many community groups, including the Central Valley Community Foundation and Fresno Building Healthy Communities, supported the plan, which garnered 52% support.
In 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled that some elements needed to pass a specific tax don’t apply if it is placed on the ballot via voter signatures. That was how Measure P got on the ballot.
What remains to be decided is the standard for approval: two-thirds or a majority. A judge in San Francisco ruled that a majority is sufficient. Recently, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab said that such measures still required two-thirds support.
The state Supreme Court is expected to make the ultimate decision.