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Plan to Build Support for Extending Fresno's Half-Cent Transportation Tax May Be DOA
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By Edward Smith
Published 5 months ago on
November 10, 2023

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Even with three years remaining to get Fresno County’s largest self-imposed tax renewed, organizers are feeling under the gun to get an extension of Measure C in front of voters.

To continue beyond its 2027 expiration, the one-half percent sales tax would have to be approved by the 2026 election.

Measure C has funded the expansion of Highways 180, 168, and 41. Proponents see the newest version as essential for fixing Fresno County roads.

After an attempt to extend the measure was defeated in 2022, supporters of the tax reached out to opponents to see if they could bridge a gap and create a path forward, said Clovis Mayor Lynne Ashbeck, who was part of the group.

“There was such, I’ll say animosity, I guess between those supporting and those opposing that it was really quite clear it didn’t really matter what we would do if we couldn’t find a way to work with those who disagreed,” Ashbeck said.

Supporters chose five members and opponents selected five members to create a framework for including more community voices in future Measure C discussions.

In October, that group presented its work to the Fresno Council of Governments.

Veronica Garibay, co-founder of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, described an administrative committee to oversee a community forum to decide what types of projects Measure C funds should be directed toward.

Garibay could not be reached and declined an earlier interview.

But after the COG meeting and a presentation to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the group’s plan appeared to be dead on arrival.

One member of the group, former Fresno City Councilmember and Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea, warned COG members that the plan subverted the power of elected officials, giving it to a community group instead.

Even if COG were to approve the group’s ultimate plan for Measure C, Fresno County Supervisors would have to agree to put it on the ballot.

Supervisors Steve Brandau and Buddy Mendes both say the group overstepped its boundaries and that they wouldn’t vote for what they’ve seen from it.

“They were tasked with having conversations, which I think was fine and great, and I’m glad everybody was able to spend time, so I give respect for that,” said Brandau. “But to come and kind of make that a very serious proposal, I think that was a case of mission creep.”

With one more meeting planned to refine the group’s proposal, Ashbeck said she is now unsure about its role, if any, going forward. Given that, she fears for the future of Measure C.

“We will never pass Measure C if we cannot engage with those that oppose the process or the measure in a way that works,” Ashbeck said.

Who Is in Group of 10?

Three elected officials, one former politician, and a business advocate made up the supporter-side of the group.

Ashbeck joined Perea, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Parlier Mayor Alma Beltran, and Fresno Chamber of Commerce President Scott Miller.

Dyer declined an interview request from GV Wire.

Representing the opposition were; Veronica Garibay, co-founder and co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability; Sandra Celedon, executive director of Fresno Building Healthy Communities; Gloria Hernandez, organizer with Mothers Helping Mothers; David Rivas and Travis Alexander with the Northern California Carpenters Union; and Kato Prado with the Youth Leadership Institute.

Hernandez declined to comment. Calls made to Fresno Building Health Communities and Youth Leadership Institute were not returned.

In the supervisors meeting, Hernandez said she was chosen from a coalition of 30 organizations.

Garibay’s and Celedon’s organizations have been actively opposed to transportation projects, including the multi-million-dollar plan to upgrade Highway 99 interchanges at North and American avenues.

They currently have a lawsuit against Caltrans saying the proposed interchange would only encourage more truck traffic.

Community groups have said Measure C processes have historically left out rural communities. During the lead-up to the 2022 Measure C election, they also called for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Did Group Genuinely Represent Measure C Opposition?

The intention of the group of 10 was to overcome objections to the measure and rebuild trust, said Ashbeck. But objections to Measure C crossed ideological lines.

Members of the opposition contingen of the group of 10 claim they were responsible for the measure’s failure at the ballot box.

“You know why they didn’t vote for Measure C?” said Hernandez at the board of supervisors meeting. “You guys paid $2 million to try to pass it. We only used $300,000 and we beat you.”

Following Measure C’s loss, the Fresno County Transportation Authority conducted a poll to find out why people voted against it, said Mike Leonardo, executive director of the agency.

The most common response they got from opponents was opposition to a new tax to pay for roads.

“We got a number of answers. Probably the most common one was ‘I pay for that already,'” Leonardo said.

Election data shows the smaller cities, whose residents community groups frequently advocate for, largely supported Measure C.

Unincorporated parts of Fresno County can range from places such as Cantua Creek to Huntington Lake, said Leonardo.

“The areas that had the lowest support for Measure C were Coalinga, Clovis, and Kingsburg, which are traditionally three of the most conservative cities in Fresno County,” Leonardo said.

Small communities such as San Joaquin and Huron overwhelmingly supported Measure C.

They heard concerns about accountability and how money would be spent.

Tony Boren, executive director of Fresno COG said there are a lot of interests in how Measure C money is spent.

“They want to sort of have a voice or believe they have a voice on what this measure looks like and right now, you’ve just got these three (community-based organizations), you know, kind of leading the parade,” Boren said.

Ashbeck said she, Dyer, and Miller from the Fresno Chamber represent fiscally-conservative voices.

“That group of 10 was never meant to include everybody who supported it or who didn’t, that was not the intent of the group,” Ashbeck said.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Measure C?

With two-and-a-half years, at most, to come up with a new Measure C, proponents of the tax have time to develop a plan two-thirds of the county can support. A constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot would, if passed, lower the voter approval threshold for tax initiatives from two-thirds to 55%.

The 2022 Measure C extension measure was favored by 58% of voters.

Mendes said the goal of a community forum as proposed by the group of 10 can better be accomplished using scientific polling data on what people want out of Measure C.

“The average person is working, they just want the roads to work, they don’t have time to go to this outreach vote,” Mendes said.

Leonardo said following the defeat, FCTA created Measure C committees that included a broad range of interests. The technical working group, designed to focus on what transportation needs there are, included politicians, business leaders, ag companies and seven different CBOs.

Ivanka Saunders, policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, told the Board of Supervisors that too much of the Measure C process takes place behind closed doors.

And 2022 wasn’t the first time a Measure C renewal failed. In 2002, the measure did not receive the necessary votes. Organizers reworked the plan to include spending to transit, including carpool programs, ag worker vanpools, and more money to the Fresno Area Express and Clovis Transit.

The measure then received overwhelming support, getting 77% approval in 2006.

Brandau said he wants to take more time getting to the final product.

“If you have a goal of getting a final product, the ‘how you get to that goal’ is very important. Or what happens is you spend a lot of time and then you never achieve your goal,” Brandau said.

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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