published on September 2, 2016 - 7:48 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Being fed up with the awful condition of our roads is easy — it’s finding the money to repair them that’s the challenge. Nearly everyone agrees California’s highways and local roads are a disaster, and for too many people in positions of power, the easy fix is to raise taxes.

 

Now, a largely unknown group of Fresno County elected officials and bureaucrats think they have the answer — in the form of yet another sales tax increase.

The Fresno County Council of Governments (COG) is the relatively invisible government organization that, through the Transportation Authority, administers the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by Measure C, (the half-cent sales tax passed by the people more than 20 years ago as a solution to the problem of crumbling highways. Its renewal was approved in 2006.) The initiative’s website says of the original measure, “Measure C delivered more than $1 billion of improvements to state highways and county roadways, and has helped the building of additional lanes and freeway improvements throughout the County.” But over the decades the program changed to include the funding of “ride-share incentive programs and environmental enhancement programs…” Draw your own conclusions.

So now the COG needs more money, and it wants us to pay. At the July 28th meeting, which I attended as the official representative of the City of Fresno, an item COG staff placed on the agenda ignited the biggest debate I’ve ever witnessed at one of the otherwise non-controversial gatherings. It began when veteran COG Administrator Tony Boren gave a presentation about the awful shape of the county’s local roads, and why a new tax is needed to fix them. Boren said the cash would come in the form of a new, yet-to-be-approved, quarter-cent sales tax increase that would raise nearly a billion dollars over its planned 20-year lifespan.

A yes vote would authorize Boren to conduct formal meetings with community organizations where he would give his presentation and solicit official support for the increase. The item also included an appropriation of taxpayer funds to conduct a political opinion poll, in an effort to gauge voters’ interest. Boren then made remarks that left at least two of us thunderstruck, explaining that he had already held at least two informal meetings with special interest groups (that could stand to benefit financially from a new tax) and that they enthusiastically lent their support. “Not just yeah,” Boren paraphrased their reactions. “But hell, yeah.”

This is a prime example of why people distrust government, and why politicians’ approval numbers are at an all-time low. In terms of sales tax, Fresno County residents are already the highest-taxed in the Valley, with a burden of 8.225-percent. It’s no secret that our area encompasses some of the poorest locations in the United States. Families here struggle to put food on the table and gas in the car. Yet politicians and bureaucrats still don’t believe they pay enough.

Clovis Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen savaged Boren, arguing that by campaigning for a second road-maintenance-related tax increase, the COG would lose the credibility and goodwill it built up as administrators of Measure C. When Boren became emphatic, Whalen cautioned that he was dancing dangerously on the line between taxpayer-paid administrator and political advocate. Whalen was right to warn Boren.

Supporters of the move, including Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez, argued the item was harmless — noting that a vote to send Boren out on an informational tour was not a final vote to increase taxes. Whalen likened it to placing the proverbial frog in a pot of cold water — with the intention of turning up the heat at a later date.

For my part, I warned my colleagues not to set this trap on the taxpayer in the dark of night, and noted that there were no journalists in the room to report on the meeting, as well as no members of the public to speak to the issue. The entire process was undemocratic and screaming for greater transparency. In the end, Kingsburg Mayor Bruce Blayney joined Whalen and myself to vote down this irresponsible proposal and its shady process. But it will, no doubt, be back. Fiscally-prudent Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin joins me in opposition to this scheme and I urge everyone else to do the same. In the meantime, people need to be vigilant and keep an eye on this bunch — they’ve got their eyes on our wallets again.

Clint Olivier is the District Seven representative on the Fresno City Council.


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