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Fresno State needs millions in repairs. Will taxpayers take on the costs?

Fresno State is among three California State Universities in the San Joaquin Valley.
Rachel Livinal
Fresno State is among three California State Universities in the San Joaquin Valley.

FRESNO, Calif. — The debate over a renewed ballot measure targeting significant repairs to Fresno State’s infrastructure has grown, as voters get another say on the campus’ future Tuesday.

Measure E – which originally appeared under a different name during the last election – promises more scholarships as well as improvements to the university’s academic programs. All of it will be paid for by generating $1.6 billion in the next 25 years through a sales tax that amounts to 1 cent for every $4.

A local ballot measure seeking taxpayer help to make improvements to a state university is a unique ask for the California State University system. The CSU Board of Trustees endorsed the measure in November.

It wasn’t the first time voters have weighed in on a matter related to the CSU.

In 2017, San Diego State got the votes needed to pass a local measure called Measure G that allowed the City of San Diego to sell a portion of the Mission Valley Stadium site to the university as it looked to expand. The measure squeezed out a win with 54%.

Fresno State President Saul Jimenez-Sandoval told KVPR taking this matter to voters has not been done before mostly because “no one thought of it.”

He said since the last election – when a version of Measure E appeared on the ballot – leaders at other universities have asked him how it was crafted. Jimenez-Sandoval said Fresno State can set the example for other campuses.

But Measure E has no shortage of detractors. The last time a version of it was on the ballot, it garnered a little over 47% of the vote.

Tim Orman, a general consultant for the Measure E campaign, said supporters of the measure are trying again because, “the needs of Fresno State are enormous and we see no other way to address those needs.”

Orman said he has seen more support for the new measure than the previous one.

Scott Miller, president of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, says the group felt the need to support a measure like Measure E this time around.

“Sometimes our board is divided. Sometimes, it's a kind of narrow support. This time, it was by a landslide,” Miller said of the chamber’s support.

Miller says the measure’s support may still hinge on perception from voters who suspect a large amount of money is going toward improvements to things like the university’s football stadium. But he says, to him and the chamber, the campaign shows a different priority.

Needs at Fresno State

A “Yes on E” sign is displayed in Clovis, Calif.
Rachel Livinal
A “Yes on E” sign is displayed in Clovis, Calif.

A Measure E fact sheet says Fresno State has an overall need of more than $200 million to address existing building deficiencies. Money generated by Measure E would be distributed to three key areas: fixing old buildings, building new ones, and enhancing student experience at Fresno State.

“We have about $500 million of deferred maintenance at Fresno State which represents about 15% of the entire system's deferred maintenance in the [CSU] system,” Jimenez-Sandoval said.

Some areas in need of repair include: fire alarms, elevators, and replacements to heating, cooling and air conditioning systems, along with health and safety upgrades to electrical and plumbing.

Many of Fresno State’s buildings are more than 30 years old. But there is also attention on buildings that Jimenez-Sandoval says “promote the economy and the vitality of the region.”

For example, the measure proposes building a 1,200-seat concert hall, a new nursing building and an expansion to the Lyles College of Engineering. These upgrades would attract more nurses and business students, university officials hope.

“The more engineers the region has, the stronger the economy tends to be,” Jimenez-Sandoval said.

He also said training those students at a Valley university like Fresno State could pay off for attendees. He said tuition at Fresno State is around $6,000. If nursing students went to a private university, they would pay somewhere around $75,000 and $80,000 or $90,000 a year, he argued.

“So the savings overall for the student would be great if we were to have more space with our nursing capabilities,” Jimenez-Sandoval said.

The university has also tried to make strides in generating support for its athletic facilities, and about 15% of Measure E money will go toward that department. Jimenez-Sandoval says improvements to athletics helps the university establish a sense of identity.

“There aren't any other professional teams in the region,” he said. “We have some semi-professional teams in the region, but everyone unifies behind the Dogs.”

The university also wants to improve its scholarships and endowments that will increase financial support for low-income and local students as well as programs like study abroad opportunities.

Will voters support more spending?

As its campuses take on more needs, the CSU is relying on a portion of a scheduled statewide facilities bond issued in 2020 aimed at improvement of its campuses. But more recently, voters across the state have been less inclined to pay for education projects.

In 2020, voters rejected Proposition 13, which would have given state schools and universities billions for upgrades. It was the first statewide education bond voters had rejected since 1994. And there’s the local rejection of a similar Fresno State improvement tax in the last election.

But Measure E would have some oversight, advocates say.

A seven-member oversight committee would be appointed if the measure is approved. Five members will be appointed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, one by the CSU chancellor’s office, and one by the Fresno State president.

Though critics of the measure have expressed concerns over the compensation for un-elected members of the committee, Orman said it’s possible they could receive nothing at all.

Given the fact that our families today are [seeing] higher prices at the pump, in the grocery stores and even increases in housing costs … Measure E for me is not the right solution for our county taxpayers.
Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria

Whether members would receive compensation and the amount will be determined by the committee, he said. He said the most members can receive is the equivalent to the salary of an executive assistant to the Board of Supervisors – which is around $81,000.

To be eligible, members must be residents of Fresno County during their term and will apply through an open application process. Members will serve five-year terms, with the option to be appointed again, but for no more than three consecutive terms.

But still, opposition to the renewed measure has brought unlikely groups together.

Earlier in February, officials like Fresno County Democratic Club Chair Ruben Zarate and Brooke Ashjian, a former Fresno Unified School Board president, joined in a press conference to speak against the measure.

Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria was also among them. She said improvements for the university would be better solved by legislative policies, instead of taxing others.

“Given the fact that our families today are [seeing] higher prices at the pump, in the grocery stores and even increases in housing costs … Measure E for me is not the right solution for our county taxpayers,” Soria told KVPR.

Soria, D-Merced, added supporters of the measure are minimizing its financial impact. She said the measure would tax residents who are not wealthy across Fresno County and said she didn’t view many benefits to that.

Legislative response to campus’ needs

The Fresno State water tower shows the campus bulldog mascot.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado
The Fresno State water tower shows the campus bulldog mascot.

Responding to arguments by opponents of Measure E that the Legislature should commit to funding university projects, Assemblymember Jim Patterson in February released letters he had sent to the legislators seeking support for improvements at Fresno State, but which had been dismissed.

Patterson, R-Fresno, said he has pleaded for support for roughly $45 million to create a concert hall at Fresno State as early as last April. He has also pushed for projects involving agricultural research and transportation.

“Since 2016,” Patterson said, “each time those budget requests were denied by the Democrats in Sacramento.”

For those who support Measure E, the need for improvements reflect a need to also support the campus. Al Scott, a fourth year student at Fresno State, said the money would mean giving back to a university that gave back to him and the community.

“I do understand that it is burdensome and maybe not the responsibility of the City of Fresno and the Valley in itself,” Scott said. “But I also understand as someone that has grown up here in the Valley how much I'm affected by people who come from Fresno State on a daily basis.”

Fresno State has been ranked by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office as one of the worst universities when it comes to the state of its facilities.

The Measure E campaign claims more than half of the academic buildings at Fresno State are at least 30 years old with others older than 60 years old. But according to a report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, there is no plan from the state to address repairs or updates to the existing infrastructure.

The office said there are simply too many repair needs at campuses for the state to keep up.

“Some campuses designate little, if any, ongoing funding from their base budgets for capital renewal, instead relying heavily on one-time state funding to address backlogs,” the report noted.

At Fresno State, improvements have been funded on a limited budget, according to Measure E supporters, who also note the last state-supported bond for campus upgrades was in 2006.

The university has reportedly spent $167 million on improvements since 2014.

‘It depends how much they value the university’

Orman, of the Measure E campaign, says ultimately people will vote for Measure E if they believe it will benefit them.

He argues 80% of the teachers in Fresno County have gone through the university. Roughly 90% of nurses have done the same.

“It depends on how much they value the university, I think,” Orman said. “And how much they see Fresno State affects their lives on a daily basis, which it does.”

He said putting this question to voters one more time will help determine that support.

“The K-12 and community college system are guaranteed funding through proposition 98 and the UC system is guaranteed funding through the California Constitution,” Orman said. “The CSU system has no such guarantee.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.