A Progressive Analysis of the Local Budget
Right-wing forces in city and county government are attempting to balance the budget on the backs of poor and working people. They want to do this by privatizing essential government services, they want to charge more to enter parks, they have
increased the fare for bus rides and they are increasing roadblocks so they can tow away immigrants’ cars and fine them outrageous amounts of money to get their car back.
I asked readers of the Community Alliance newspaper to tell me their ideas for progressive solutions to the financial crisis we are in. Some of those responses are below. To get the ball rolling, I offered my top five suggestions for balancing the budget:
Remove and sell the video surveillance cameras and other equipment used by the Fresno Police Department to spy on us. The police department no longer has enough money to even monitor them.
Providing housing to every homeless person in Fresno would save the community an estimated $30 million a year. It is less expensive to provide housing and social services to the homeless than it is emergency medical services and all of the other costs associated with people living on the streets. The City of Fresno conducted a cost/benefit analysis that details the savings.
Get the Board of Supervisors and the City Council to pass a resolution to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, we have spent $3,805 for every man, woman and child in the United States on these wars. If we were to end these wars of occupation, we would have $380 million extra to spend in Fresno County next year and every year after (if we don’t get into another war).
Stop the police from using excessive force and unnecessarily shooting citizens. Taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year to settle lawsuits because police officers are not properly trained and are not held accountable for their actions.
Reduce the salaries for city and county upper management who make more than $100,000 a year. For example, Police Chief Jerry Dyer should reduce his $210,767 a year salary (based on info from 2009). In addition to his salary, Dyer has already retired and is receiving retirement income as well. To prevent layoffs, upper management’s salaries should be cut back to no more than $100,000 a year. If you can’t live reasonably well on that amount of money in Fresno, then perhaps it is time to move on.
Here are the responses from our readers:
Off the top of my head…Remove the freeway access signals; this is Fresno, not LA. Stop using law enforcement resources to curtail or close medical marijuana dispensaries. Eliminate double dipping (getting paid for an actual job while also getting paid retirement benefits). Develop restorative justice programs throughout the criminal justice system to minimize the number of offenders serving jail time.
Michael D. Evans
Your recommendations are on target―sensible, reasonable, practical and doable. It’s very visible and this short list will grab people’s attention.
I think the idea of reducing the top city and county salaries is one of the best. I would favor a cap of $120,000 for the highest positions and proportional restrictions for lower levels of management, with an adjustment each year in the same amount as Social Security. If put to a city/countywide vote, I am pretty sure it would easily pass.
I know Wall Street claimed that it needed to pay such high salaries to get the best talent. Well, we see where that got us. Further, a salary cap would be a good example from the top…rather than the other way around.
I also do not like the system that allows people like the police chief to work and draw retirement at the same time. I know there is some rationale for how this actually saves us money, but I still think it makes government workers look like pigs rather than public servants. Nobody is irreplaceable!
Just an idea, the old Elkhorn Bootcamp facility was supposedly closed. I’m not sure if it is currently abandoned or maybe used for other purposes. But maybe it can be a housing facility for our homeless. I dunno, just a thought.
I can’t think of any better ideas. You know, I’ve been endorsing those very ones for years. Maybe what we need to do is submit them in a public way so that people can see them.
I would suggest that the Community Alliance publish a list of American-made companies that produce products in this country so that we can buy those products, which I think would help the economy. I would also suggest a list of union-made products. Keep up the good work.
By eliminating or reducing the programs that rely on spraying (for pests) on a regular or calendar basis instead of on an inspect and treat if there is a problem basis. The city could save enough per year to employ 2 to 4 social workers or house a number of homeless, etc.
Your suggestions are valid. Only a few brave persons mention it, but another way to increase revenue is to close loopholes in the tax
code, certainly on the state and federal levels, making more revenue to share with cities and counties.
These are all grand ideas and I am certain that given just a few minutes thought, all of us could come up with hundreds of additional ideas that would save the city tens of millions.
But who is our champion? The one who will bring these ideas in the form of bills to the city and county supervisors? As you have stated quite correctly, the right wing is in charge and will never acquiesce to any such thinking. So, without a champion elected to the popper position and able to force the powers that be to surrender their power in favor of the majority of people in this area, these ideas will never see the light of day in any laws.
Time and time again we have witnessed the absolute arrogance of the Republicans who are in charge when it comes to doing what is best for all of us and not just the monied elites. Oh, they do talk a good speech and they seem oh so logical in their approach to these problems but I can assure you, based on human nature, they will never give in to actually thinking about the average person before themselves and the reason is simple―the average person does not give them any money and the people who are most affected do not vote. So, why should the powers that be pay any attention to them?
And, even as we have seen in Wisconsin, Michigan and several other states, even when the people come out and show their displeasure by the thousands, they are ignored. If we are to succeed, we need a champion―someone who is recognized by nearly everybody. A star who will get behind these ideas and push them in ways you and I can never do.
Just start issuing traffic tickets to all those who think that their time is more important than those who waited their turn at the traffic light, who think that the red light does not mean for them to stop. Left turners are particularly egregious whether they zoom into the turn lane and keep going or whether they are slow moving enough to stop. I doubt that it has been changed from my time with the school crossing guard committee when following the yellow light there was a pause in which it was red in all directions before the light actually turned green, yet sometimes as many as four vehicles would continue. Sometimes I think we could do away with all taxes just by issuing light violations!
A Proposal for Benefit Units in the City of Fresno:
FRESNO FRIARS AND DEVOTEES
The five ideas for Fresno City and County government to save money illustrate that authoritarian government has costs: the equipment of oppression, the salaries of oppressors, the court costs of defending oppressive actions, and costs paid by compassionate societies that result from treating people like commodities.
AN INDIVIDUAL SALARY CAP
The last money-saving idea, limiting executive salaries, is a good one. Fresno could to set an individual salary cap of $100k per employee of governments, schools, and in pension payouts. This is the right thing to do in a time of tight money. We should agree that we all have a part to take, and the part for upper management is to take salary cuts down to only double or triple what most of the rest of us get paid.
City management no doubt believes that it is lucky to find experienced professionals who will work for our city, and that paying them multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars is wise budgeting. Some of these excellent workers will leave if they have a salary cap limiting them to only two or three times what the rest of us make. Yet this will be part of the price of adaptation to tight money.
Not all these professionals will leave, however. Some of them may be thankful to have gotten what they were paid in past years and thankful to be paid $100k/yr. in future years. Yet those who do leave will open up employment opportunities for we who remain in Fresno. Our city should have a policy of training professionals from within our agencies, people ready to take the places of those who leave for various reasons, including retirement as well as to take more lucrative positions elsewhere.
The third money-saving idea is good, that the City Council should pass a resolution against military involvement in the Middle East, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of this resolution, the council should accept the consequences of such action and demonstrate our readiness to accept them.
Although the federal government would save, proportionally to Fresno’s population, nearly a half billion dollars annually, it would be difficult for us to arrange to direct this money to Fresno–particularly since most of it is borrowed money, and part of getting the money here would involve an agency selling a half billion dollars worth of bonds that later would have to be repaid with interest.
After resolving that the U.S. should withdraw from the Middle East, in recognition of the consequences, the council should do its part in preparing us for $9/gallon gasoline by selling bonds to build dozens, or better, hundreds, of windmills to generate electricity for powering electric cars, without the use of fossil fuel. This would have the accompanying benefit of providing employment for a part of the 15% of our workforce unable to find jobs. The higher price of gasoline will make wind power and electric cars cost-effective, assuring the profitability of City investment in wind generators. Fresno County has lots of open space where the wind goes sweeping down the plain. We should use it.
TAXING FRESNO’S WEALTHY
The Council should seek the labor and talent for wind-power construction as far as if feasible within the Fresno area. We would want to put Fresno’s money in state-of-the-art alternative energy, but we would also want to use technologies that can be supplied, as much as possible, locally. We should use existing manufacturing capacity to make, install, and maintain as much of the wind power as we could. Then these local workers (as all economic commentators would tell us) would stimulate other businesses as they spend their wages, yielding more jobs, with more incomes, to tax for supplying funding for Fresno’s government.
Instead of simply selling bonds to fund the wind power, the wealthy among us should be called on to make financial sacrifices in this post-slowdown time of special need. They should be asked/order to pay more taxes. Fresno is literally the most agriculturally productive area on the planet, producing billions of dollars worth of commodities. They are grown in the county area, however, not the city. Is any of the grower income is spent or invested in the city? The wealthy are skilled at sheltering their millions, and if taxes on income and property rise, many of the wealthiest will move both out of the city, out of range of city taxing authority. As such getting the wealthy among us to chip in proportionately as they should be difficult or impossible for Fresno government.
Many of the wealthy will continue to benefit from amenities that we of Fresno fund with our taxes while they pay for little of it, living out of town and simply visiting. Surmounting this freeloading by the wealthy will probably require state-level legislation. Yet some of the wealthy will feel good about meeting their obligations to help pay proportionately for city services.
The Council could request that the state collect more tax from those earning above the figure Pres. Obama identified, $250k/yr. and share it with cities. That will be tall order given the economic false consciousness that the vast majority of Americans believe is immutable law: such ideas as businesses are never truly taxed since they can and will pass all taxes on to their customers. This policy advocacy should become a part, although a minor part, of Fresno’s strategy to deal with our financial shortfall.
A city income tax on paychecks above $100k/yr. should be instituted along with higher property taxes. The City of Cincinnati has a simple 1.9 percent paycheck tax with no deductions or exemptions. Fresno could institute that or a simple progressive income tax. Some wealthy citizens will remain in Fresno, helping their neighbors.
HOUSING AND EMPLOYING OUR HOMELESS
The second idea on the list, to provide housing for every homeless person in Fresno as a means of saving social service costs is an important idea. Most social services are county responsibilities, and about 2/3 of Fresno County’s budget comes from Federal sources. Even so, a city or county effort to house every homeless person here should be a city priority second only to fire and police protection in these times of economic slowdown. (Responsibility for education is taken care of by a separate taxing authority.) If we take care of our homeless and unemployed with dignity, if we plan it that way, it could be a feel-good effort that would be as encouraging to all of us as having a classy sports stadium, a resplendent museum and/or beautiful business and civic center districts. The homeless could be called to communities of honor, similar to the Peace Corps after Pres. Kennedy called us to, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
Housing the homeless should not be regarded as a simple matter of opening buildings for people to occupy. After a year of homelessness, people become unadapted to the job economy, having become acclimated to a culture of life on the street. However, in addition to the homeless, there are other Fresnans in need of city housing: people in families who are doubling up in houses due to unemployment, and others who do not have family to move in with. At any rate, a city-created option for another way could be an invaluable service.
Paul Harvey has called for “workfare” instead of welfare, in which people would be obligated to work for their relief checks and EBT benefits. A major reason that this has not been instituted is the expense of workfare, more that of welfare, with its requirements of hiring supervisors, funding transportation, providing safety equipment, buying materials, and so on. In addition, if those performing workfare do useful work, unemployed citizens may object to the possible decent-paying jobs’ word being done by the underpaid workfare recipients: if the city wants work done, it should rather expand the civil service. There may also be the hope that these new civil-service jobs’ benefits would filter down to the homeless and unemployed. For that to happen, though, would require such a massive expansion of the civil service that the additional taxation or debt to fund it has small probability to happening.
BETWEEN A JOB AND A PROGRAM
Perhaps the Fresno City Council could attain a realistic cost-benefit ratio with a benefit directly helping the unemployed and homeless with a new sort of benefit package: a secure place to live, food, and a small wage in exchange for 20 hours of work each week on city projects and services to each other and adherence to a lifestyle contract.
Jobholders don’t want their employers meddling in their off-work, personal lives. This different sort of benefit package, though, would involve becoming part of a supportive community. To have a chance of functioning successfully, it should involve an explicit spirituality. The Council would not make judgments about the spirituality with be several units, each governed by different spiritual ideals, expressed in their different membership contracts. This would not violate the proper separation of church and state with each unit given flexibility in setting forth its own principles, with the possibility of diversity of expressions of life principles.
THE FRESNO FRIARS AND FRESNO DEVOTEES
One unit might call itself the Fresno Friars, a group of Christian brethren taking the Bible as their guide to faith and practice. Another unit might call itself the Fresno Devotees, a group of Hindu practitioners using the Baghavad Gita as its source of agreed-upon principles.
Life in such benefit units would involve would involve a different sort of subsistence than staying at a homeless shelter. It would involve a different sort of career than in getting a job. The Fresno Friars and the Fresno Devotees would not replace these options of shelters and jobs but would supplement them. They would open meaningful lifestyle options for Fresnans which could continue to be available and attractive to some of us no matter how much stimulus money is poured into our corporations.
The Fresno Friars and Devotees and other benefit units will distinguish themselves and enamor themselves to the people of Fresno through the service they give. As mentioned above, the work obligation would be 20 hours weekly. It should be set at this half-time level for various reasons, in part to motivate Fresnans to join, with the free time a motivator to participate. The low wages will be a lesser motivation. Also, the spiritual-based contracts should specify activity to fill the other waking hours of every member of each unit: meditation, study, exercise, group work, and a personal vocation, of writing, making music, investigation, any many more uplifting activities. Leaders of the units should meet with each member in planning these activities, some in groups, some in solitude. Depending on the level of independence and maturity of members, the activity hours could be spent in individual cells or in common areas, where meal are served.
The work obligation of service to Fresno could begin on an easy level, with park maintenance. If such a group had been in place when the Granite Park Center development ended, they could have worked to preserve the materials delivered but not used, then dome something creative with them. Currently, the City is asking churches to take the place of PARC workers in staffing parks, maintaining buildings and leading programs for youth of the neighborhoods. This sort of work could be done by the benefit units. As work groups of benefit units gain increasing amounts of experience, their increasing proficiency would open up increasing work opportunities, for maintenance of newer benefit units’ buildings, private abandoned buildings, and City buildings. As they staff parks’ after-school programs, they could tackle increasingly responsible social service tasks, including ombudsman services and counseling.
As the work groups in benefit units increase in their experience and responsibilities, getting funding, from City, foundation, or private sources, for the equipment and materials to carry out tasks for City projects will not be difficult. Yet to constant attention should be paid to economizing where ever possible. A greater economy can translate into greater openings for expansion of more benefit units. One area of economizing should be in transportation. Fresno is small enough that most of the movement of members around town should be human-powered. Bicycles can take about twice as long to get to places as by automobile, but the invested time will add to the commitment to a small carbon footprint. It will fulfill the commitment to health, and fulfill the commitment to conserving money for use by other groups, particularly after the success of political pressure to stop the Mid East wars and the price of gasoline doubles or triples. (No blood for oil!) A bicycle shop, with tools, parts, and bikes in need of restoration could serve several benefit groups or one large one.
Unemployed Fresnans who are not in a benefit unit might object to the use of low-paid recovering homeless people to do jobs that perhaps should be done by workers who want to support families. In these times of economic slowdown and layoffs of City staff, however, this sort of objection is blunted. Also, it was not effective against Tree Fresno, which uses volunteer workers for City landscaping.
The purpose of the benefit unit is to provide a healthy place for not only sheltering the homeless but proving places for their personal growth. Yet during times of economic slowdown and the Valley’s high unemployment, there may be others who would choose to become a part of a benefit unit. With the homeless joining to seek shelter, the unemployed might join to seek work experience. Doubled-up families might join seeking different living spaces. The under-employed might join to seek opportunities to exercise leadership of workgroup projects from concept through realization. The retired might seek opportunities for useful time expenditure. The socially minded might join to seek places of meaningful service.
HURDLES FOR BENEFIT UNITS
As the experience of the now-closed Veterans Transitional Home in the former Lamplighter Inn near Clinton and Highway 99 taught us, which closed when no one came forward to pay a P. G. & E. bill in the tens of thousands of dollars, such benefit units are best not planned to require huge financial support.
Getting started, the Friars and Devotees would ask primarily that the city relax building codes to permit residence in abandoned and empty buildings, and sources of building materials to make modifications to build secure individual cells. (“Cells” are what rooms in monasteries are called (And they gave the name to living cells, which looked like them.).) The units would also seek materials to create eating and storage areas. Funding could be earned by contract jobs arranged by the benefit units themselves using skills the beneficiaries bring.
LOW CARBON, LOW COST
A basic principle that should be part of the plan of these benefit units, the Fresno Friars and Fresno Devotees, would be keeping their carbon footprints small–and thus also keeping expenses small. The units should reject and forget about fossil-fueled heating and air conditioning. Part of the discipline of these spiritual communities would be enduring winter cold and summer heat in ways that do not involve industrial technology but involve rather care for each other.
In winter the units could see that everyone has blankets for warmth at night and coats for day, and provide insulated rooms where members can gather and warm them, sharing their body heat. This is a practical strategy in Fresno, but it could work even in Midwest cities. In summers the units could beat the heat by seeing that members have cross breezes, cool rooms with fans and water, and during heat waves perhaps even shaded places to soak their clothing.
The units could lead Fresno in their example of this minor self-sacrifice for avoiding of roasting our planet. They would also thus simplify the process of building and funding their residences.
EXERCISE AND MEDICAL CARE
Regulating body temperature without industrial technology would be only one bodily discipline. Physical exercise would be another part of the unit contracts. This is part of why the work obligation would be only 20 hours per week. Other hours would be spent in chosen activity. Doing this as a group could make this discipline easier. It could include competitive sport, including running, bicycling, basketball, and such. The units would be healthy groups, and this would be helpful for reducing demand on social services. It would be part of the health plan for the group. Medical care would probably be provided by MediCal. Unit members would qualify for MediCal because their combined wages and in-kind benefits would be sufficiently low.
SHELTER AND FOOD
The benefits for Fresno Friars and Devotees would include cash payments of about $1 or $2 per hour, which would not the violate minimum wage law when added to the in-kind payments of room and board. Currently, social services pay for residential motels, $200 per week or so for a room for a small family. The benefit unit cells would be comparable to these facilities over time as members upgrade them. The meal areas could supply food that would have additional, lower value, bringing compensation above minimum wage but not so high as to disqualify for MediCal. Older residents will qualify for MediCare.
A NEW PARADIGM OR AN OLD ONE: THE PEACE CORPS
The idea is not new, but as old at President Kennedy’s idea of the Peace Corps. Benefit units of Fresno Friars and Devotees would both share similarities and have differences from the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
SIMILARITIES of the Friars/Devotees & Peace Corps/AmeriCorps:
High purpose of service to society
Open to nearly everyone interested, from Fresno and around the nation and the world
Low wages combined with provided housing (and board)
Projects planned in response to needs of both governments and communities
Designed for those without established careers, but open to anyone
DIFFERENCES between the Friars/Devotees & Peace Corps/AmeriCorps:
Peace Corps/AmeriCorps Friars/Devotees
College graduates sought All educational levels welcomed
Travel to locations of need Meeting needs in Fresno
Independence after full-time work days Group activities in pursuit of holistic/personal development goals
Highest-tech projects able to be funded Low-carbon-footprint projects
Two-year commitment of temporary service Various contract-based commitments with no limit on renewals
Democratic governance should be a goal of every benefit group to the degree that the membership shows the maturity to exercise it. Of course basic principles would be voted in by the City Council, and these principles would be amendable only by the Council (although the right of petition, of legislative consultation, remains). Everything voted in is subject to amendment and/or recall, as we learn how ideas work out. Committees of governance and management along with obligations to participate in them should be a part of membership contracts.
Part of governance will be procedures for the expulsion of members who it is clear are unable or unwilling to fit in. Members’ status could be made clear in the usual ways, with violations identified, reprimands made, and finally, hearings confirming orders to take a walk–to the Rescue Mission, the Poverello House, or new shelters that some benefit groups will choose to set up and run.
The ideal of the Friars and Devotees would be to welcome everyone who has needs and wants to take part. Realistically not everyone will fit in, and some people may not come to that realization on their own. Assimilation of some of the homeless may not be rapid. Life on the streets can foster mindsets of distrust, substance abuse, disrespect for law and the rights of others and other social mores, manipulation, and insistence on entitlement. Although solitude is an honored part of the monastic lifestyle, privacy will be nonexistent at first, with a novice period in close association with a well-matched buddy. Privacy could be earned over time, as novices demonstrate their ability to live out the principles and disciplines set forth in his or her group’s contract.
The work of Fresno Friars and Devotees could show that progressives have ideas that can save the City and County money without hurting and punishing the poor, elderly, and those least able to make up the budget shortfall. This effort could help save money and serve Fresnans at both ends of the project, helping both those in the benefit units, the Fresno Friars and the Devotees, and those they reach out to youth, the elderly, the homeless, and users of parks and other amenities that make urban life a joyous experience.
Fresno County Employee