Will two-thirds of Fresnans agree to pay a little extra for arts and parks?
Imagine a wonderland in which arts organizations get to divvy up $4.5 million annually in public funds to make their city a better place. What’s that, you say? You can’t quite dare to dream that big?
Go ahead. It’s possible.
If community supporters have their way, a sales-tax-increase on the November ballot will fund parks, recreation and arts programs for 30 years in the city of Fresno. Voters will have to approve it — and by a whopping 66.7 percent margin, which is a steep hill to climb. But it’s possible with a lot of organizing and hard work.
I dropped by an organizing meeting on Tuesday evening to learn more:
The scene: The meeting room at the Central Valley Community Foundation, which is helping to organize the ballot measure, was crowded with the biggest concentration of arts movers-and-shakers (and just plain enthusiasts) that I’ve ever seen.
The organizers: The foundation is putting financial muscle behind the campaign, which is being led by an organization called Fresno for Parks. While it’s meant to be a grassroots effort, there have been some leading figures working behind the scenes in the past months to get things rolling. Philosopher/farmer Mas Masumoto and daughter Nikiko are among that group. Danielle Bergstrom, with the foundation, has been doing much of the heavy lifting. The three were among a number of speakers in a program that combined a pep rally with a policy-wonk discussion.
The nuts and bolts: The measure would raise the sales tax within the city of Fresno ⅜ of a cent for 30 years. Organizers estimate it would generate $38 million per year and cost the average Fresno household $39 per year. Non-profit arts and cultural organizations would receive 12 percent of that amount. The rest would go to recreation programs and the city’s parks, which are notoriously underfunded. A nine-member oversight body appointed by the Fresno City Council (and approved by the mayor) will supervise the distribution of funds. All this could start happening in June 2019.
The transparency: Of paramount importance, organizers say, is that the entire process — from coming up with an arts master plan to awarding grants — be open and inclusive. Bad memories still linger from the “Arts to Zoo” measure passed in Fresno more than 20 years ago that was overturned in court because the board disbursing the money wasn’t accountable to the public. (There was a lot of hubris at work there, and a lot of I-told-you-so’s afterward.) In this new measure, things will be run according to the city charter.
The campaign: 23,000 signatures of registered voters in the City of Fresno (no county island residents allowed) are needed to get the measure on the November ballot, though organizers are planning to collect more just to be safe. Fresno for Parks hopes to raise $750,000 to $1 million to pass the measure.
The “arts” part of all this: You’ll notice that the arts and culture component isn’t prominent either in the name of the organization or the website. (There are lots of trees and bicycles on the website but no photos of adorable children playing violins, say, or painters painting.) There are a couple of reasons for this. The original idea for the ballot measure focused just on parks, but supporters folded arts/culture into the mix later in the process, they explained at the meeting. The second reason — and this is just me speculating — is that when pre-planning polling was done to assess the likelihood of passage, the categories of parks and recreation appealed to a broader section of the electorate. And — again, this is me thinking out loud — the arts can be controversial, so organizers have tried to find a sweet spot in terms of attracting arts supporters (who tend to be passionate) while not turning off folks who’d be all for better parks but dismissive of public funding for the arts. It will be interesting to see how this balance is fine-tuned as the campaign progresses.
The challenges: The two-thirds requirement is really tough. Another potential problem: There is a possible public safety sales tax initiative that could go before the Fresno City Council for approval soon. That tax would be ½ percent over 15 years. If that happens, voters could feel tax overload.
The optimism: But at Tuesday’s meeting, enthusiasm was high. The crowd was aglow. Petitions were passed out, donations solicited and questions answered. (There will sure to be many more to come.) In a cheery finale to the meeting, Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Fresno-based Alliance for California Traditional Arts, handed over a $20,000 check from her organization to the campaign. The fight for wonderland has begun.
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