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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press

March 27, 2001

Downtown Fresno
Boosting Government Growth
At Taxpayer's Expense!

By Howard Hobbs Ph.D.
Valley Press Media Network

    FRESNO -- Back in 1959 the number of Fresno children born to a single parent was less than 5 per cent. Being a single parent in the late 1950’s usually resulted in having to leave town, suddenly.
     Well, things have changed. State Department of Finance statistics reveal that Fresno has become so supportive of out-of-wedlock births, that now Fresno has become the one place where single mothers want to be when having babies.
     Considering the economic incentives that Fresno offers a single parent, who could afford to live anywhere else?
     Social Service cases have increased by more than 70 thousand since 1991. Single parent births are being added to more the 40% per thousand new Fresnans who arrived since 1991.
     In that time the number of new government workers were hired downtown exceeded the number of workers who found jobs replacing workers in the private sector.
     What a startling picture this is, Fresno's private economy had no real growth, Yet, the local government was growing at the rate exceeding ten per cent annually, since Fresno’s Centennial Year of 1985. Yes, that’s right.
     After considering government downsizing a few yeas back, government is now the biggest spender in town. The California Department of Finance reports there are now a whopping fifty-three thousand government jobs and only a mere 175 thousand private sector jobs.
    With a Fresno population of 723 thousand and so many Fresnan’s on government payrolls, Fresno is rapidly running out of government office space. But, the government likes to keep its workers all bunched-up in a large group, anyway. That way its easier to watch over them. What better place to house all these workers than in Downtown Fresno?
     Its only a one square mile area, and there’s almost enough abandoned commercial private sector buildings along the Old Fresno Mall to house all of them without much of a fuss.
     If you haven’t been Downtown lately you might drop by and take a look at all of the refurbishing that’s been going on as government departments and agencies are taking-over Downtown Fresno.
     Public examination of the current fiscal condition of Fresno points up the ineffectiveness and long-term consequences of a pattern of government spending to shore up Fresno’s shrinking agricultural based-economy. It's nothing new.
     City Hall has been ever confident in the healing power of spending. No wonder. For decades, the Fresno Municipal Code prohibits driving on the Mall. Without auto access to that portion of Fulton Street, there is not enough walk-in counter sales to support major stores and merchants.
     A big-big-big government presence on the Fulton Mall, causes potential store owners to prefer other markets for their private investment money. This pattern has weakened City’s fiscal strength.
     Over the years, the economic loss associated with nonproductive Downtown private property has been an enormous drain on the City finance. Eventually, it has contributed to Moody’s downgrading Fresno’s municipal bond credit rating.
     Tax-exempt municipal bonds were formerly given an exemplary "AAA" rating. But, this has been denigrated by Moody’s to a mediocre "A" standing. Downgrading of Fresno municipal bonds draws attention to the fiscal crisis and makes Fresno much less attractive for private investors, insurance companies, and banks.
     Planning, development, and spending policies combined with unanticipated market reactions set the stage back in 1959 for all this. City Hall had lots of encouragement, though.
     Take for example, Fresno legislators who get federal tax dollars to flow like a mighty river directly into Downtown Fresno. This artificial economy makes for overly optimistic redevelopment of Downtown through eminent domain powers financed by federal "investment".
     For a few billions in tax dollars, Fresno received both needed and excessive public works projects. One of the new government buildings Fresno probably did not need turned out to be the B.F. Sisk Federal Courthouse on "O" Street. Fresno is still pursuing those same spending policies.
     Now, its going to be a new, bigger, and better $215 million federal courthouse for Fresno that we probably still don’t need! Back in the "the good ‘ole days" it probably was a whole lot different working for the government than it is today.
     But, back in 1957 government workers were very small in number and extremely conservative with public spending. City Hall wasn’t the same, either.
     Remember the story going around Downtown in the 1950’s about the time they attempted to hire a new City redevelopment agency director?
     As the story went, only three people applied for the agency job. One was a math teacher. Another was a public accountant. There was also a local Fresno State College econmics professor.
     The day arrived for the interviews for the redevelopment job. The interviewer called in the math teacher and asked "What is one plus one? The math teacher replied "One plus one is two."
     The interviewer from City Hall asked "Two, exactly?" The math teacher looked at the interviewer incredulously and said "Yes, two, exactly."
     Not satisfied with the math teacher’s answer, the interviewer called-in the public accountant and asked the same question "What is one plus one?" The public accountant said "On average, two - give or take ten percent, but on average, two."
     In desperation, the interviewer called for the Fresno State professor to come in, and then posed the ultimate question "What is one plus one?" The Fresno State economist slowly got up, silently walked to the open door and closed it, pulled the open window shut, sat down next to the interviewer and, smiled, then whispered "What do you want it to equal?"
    The rest of this story is now the sad history of Downtown Fresno.

       [Editor's Note: This column was originally published in the Fresno Guide Newspaper, in 1992. Source for Fresno statistics: California Dept. of Finance, Sacramento, CA.]

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