No on P: With crime this bad, now is not the time 

for a parks tax 

By Darius Assemi Special to The Bee
October 5, 2018

This is the reality of life in Fresno, and it doesn’t matter where you live.

Every time you park your car, you wonder if a window will be smashed and everything inside will be stolen. This has happened to me twice in the last year.

You go to work every day hoping that you won’t return to find power tools taken from your garage, electronics swiped from your home, or even your pet missing.

Why should we be surprised when local businesses and longtime residents pack up and leave Fresno? Over the past few years, Fresno has averaged 900 robberies and 4,500 burglaries annually.

It pains me to admit these things because I love Fresno with all my heart. It’s where members of my immigrant family and I chose long ago to build our lives.

But until our city corrals this out-of-control crime, I can’t support the effort to raise the Fresno sales tax by 3/8 of a cent for public parks, trails, and cultural arts. If the hike is approved, Fresno’s sales tax climbs to 8.35 percent.

Meanwhile, the Clovis sales tax stays at 7.975 percent, with ample parks and trails. You can bet that Fresno consumers seeking a better deal on cars and furniture will head to Clovis.

Consider what Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp says about Measure P: “Without proper law enforcement staffing in the city of Fresno, parks become a breeding ground for increased criminal activity. We need to focus on making the city and the parks we already have, safer before we fund additional parks.”

I love parks and cultural arts

Parks provide many benefits to our community. That’s why every Granville neighborhood built over the last 10 years includes parks and trails.

If well-maintained, parks and trails make for a better Fresno. They create a sense of community, a place for families to gather and engage in recreation. That is why we helped the city secure $2.5 million in state grants to build the Cultural Arts Park in downtown Fresno.

We also have funded many cultural arts programs for underprivileged kids in our schools. I understand the value that art brings to a community. But art without safety is a trap that creates a hopeless future for us.

Measure P supporters calculate that if the sales tax hike passes the city will reap an additional $38 million annually for parks and trails – about $1.1 billion over 30 years. But with population growth and a solid economy, that total could become $2 billion.

Do we really want to commit as much as $2 billion to amenities without addressing our public safety needs today and in the future?

Don’t forget, the city already spends nearly $13 million a year on parks. And here’s something that people aren’t talking about: Measure P locks in that $13 million, which in a recession could subject police and fire to funding cuts.

Parks shouldn’t come before public safety

Many members of my staff have been the victims of car theft and home burglary. When a call is made to the Fresno Police Department, the answer is some version of “we don’t have the resources to send someone out if no one was hurt.”

There was a time when the first question my home buyers would ask was whether our project was in Clovis Unified School District. That’s because they wanted their kids to get the best education.

Now, the No. 1 question is about which city the project is in because they want their family to be safe.

Remember: Public safety is government’s first obligation to residents.​

Our immigration program must be updated to reflect the needs of our country.

We need more police today – not five or 10 years down the line.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer says that his department needs at least 900 officers right now.

Excluding the 75 officers funded by grants and assigned to special duties, the chief has 740 officers – or 160 officers short of what the city really needs – to patrol and respond to crimes around the clock, seven days a week, and to investigate serious crimes such as homicides and rapes.

Once the department reaches 900 officers, the chief recommends that the department add about 15 more officers every time Fresno grows by 10,000 residents. With that kind of staffing, Dyer says, his department can consistently reduce violent crime and theft.

911 calls on hold for six minutes or longer

The department suffers, too, from a serious shortage of support personnel. Most critical is the dearth of dispatchers.

The state wants 95 percent of 911 calls answered in 15 seconds or less. We’re not close to meeting that standard. Sometimes, dispatchers are so overwhelmed that 911 callers are on hold “for six or seven minutes,” Dyer says.

Meanwhile, cops in the field are saddled with old radios, guns well beyond their recommended years of use, and cars with more than 200,000 miles on them, says Damon Kurtz, president of the Fresno Police Officers Association. He estimates that the communications system linking officers to dispatch needs a $30 million rebuild.

Increased police presence deters crime

A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice identified the specific factors that reduce crime.

One, hiring more police officers. Their presence on the streets and in neighborhoods is a proven crime deterrent. Two, engaging in data-driven, pro-active policing.

Chief Dyer relies on data in deciding where to focus his limited resources. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the troops to implement the pro-active “community policing” that many residents desire.

In fact, Fresno’s police funding is so bare bones that Dyer is out in the community raising money for the department’s needs. That might be OK for a college football coach, but it shouldn’t be required of a big-city police chief.

For example, PD’s “real-time crime center,” which passes along key information to officers on patrol, was made possible by $600,000 from an anonymous donor. The body-worn video cameras on Fresno officers? Purchased with a $500,000 donation.

Parks tax is premature

Until we address these real issues, I am not willing to support new taxes for parks. There’s also a critical timing issue: If this parks tax passes, our citizenry will have less of an appetite to tax themselves down the road for public safety.

Instead of taxing ourselves $38 million — and likely much more every year for parks — we should ask the police department exactly how much it needs to keep us safe. Then we should figure out how to properly fund the department and require an annual audit of how the new funding is used.

Before voting, ask yourself: Do I want my children or grandchildren to play in a park that isn’t safe? Does having more parks in an unsafe city create a better future for us?

The promoters of this measure have good intentions. I have many friends who whole-heartedly support this proposal and we’ve had rigorous debates. But we should address public safety first, then look at how to beautify our community.

When we are safe, I will put my heart and soul into helping Fresno develop more parks and trails that we can use to commute, recreate, and beautify our city.