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Voters rejected a tax to fix their university. Will they ever change their minds?

James Sepeda, left, his grandfather, Don Slayton, and mother, Tami Pafford, stand in front of the home they share in Fresno. Despite being fans of Fresno State football–and the fact that Sepeda just graduated from the university earlier this month–they all voted no for Measure E, a ballot measure that could have helped the school.
Rachel Livinal
James Sepeda, left, his grandfather, Don Slayton, and mother, Tami Pafford, stand in front of the home they share in Fresno. Despite being fans of Fresno State football–and the fact that Sepeda just graduated from the university earlier this month–they all voted no for Measure E, a ballot measure that could have helped the school.

FRESNO, Calif. — James Sepeda knows his way around Fresno State’s campus – but he isn’t exactly proud to show it off.

On a recent day, the 24-year-old graduating senior gave KVPR a tour of the campus and pointed out a moldy ceiling tile on the verge of collapse in an esports center, in the basement of the 50-year-old student union building.

The tile was browned along its edges, with two sides sticking out of the frame. He says it had taken some water damage from recent rain. “When you look at an apple that you've left in the fridge too long and it starts to get the fuzzy stuff on it,” Sepeda said, “You can kind of see that fuzzy stuff on this.”

Another tile nearby had fallen out altogether.

Along with the damaged ceiling tiles, he’s seen peeling paint, dirty vents, dysfunctional air conditioning, outdated appliances and holes in some buildings’ ceilings or walls.

Sepeda isn’t treading new territory. The university itself acknowledged the need for work. The school has amassed nearly $500 million in deferred maintenance, according to a strategic plan produced by the California State University (CSU) chancellor’s office, including an estimated $160 million in exterior building systems upgrades and $38 million to replace fire alarms. .

Historically, the state has not allocated enough money to adequately address all of the needs at Fresno State. In an effort to make up the difference, the task of paying for infrastructure upgrades was recently put to voters with Measure E, a ballot measure.

The measure on the March 5th primary, the first of its kind to support improvements at a CSU campus, would have imposed a one cent sales tax on every four dollars spent by Fresno County residents. As a result, it would have raised a projected billion and a half dollars to cover the university’s deferred maintenance and new infrastructure projects, like HVAC replacements, a new concert hall, and affordable student housing.

But county voters like Sepeda rejected it.

“I already pay enough tuition as it is,” Sepeda said.

He’s among the 87,389 residents, or 57% of voters, who opposed Measure E in the March primary. It lost by a greater margin than an earlier iteration of the measure that was opposed by 53% of voters in 2022.

Despite these blows, supporters of the bill say the university’s relationship with the community is as strong as ever.

“My mission today remains the same — to spotlight Fresno State’s inherent value and crucial contributions to our region, state and nation,” wrote Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval in a letter to the public after the election defeat. “Moving forward, I plan to take every opportunity to meet with local and state legislators to advocate for the funding of Fresno State, and the entire system, so we can remain innovative and competitive.”

A major backer has also said the measure is likely to return in a future election, though with some changes.

Voters said ‘no’ for different reasons

Sepeda holds a tile that fell out of the ceiling in a classroom building.
Rachel Livinal
Sepeda holds a tile that fell out of the ceiling in a classroom building.

Sepeda wasn’t the only one in his family to vote no on the measure. He lives with his grandfather, Don Slayton, and his mom, Tami Pafford. They all watch football together– including the Fresno State Bulldogs. But they voted no, too, for different reasons.

Pafford, for instance, didn’t like the idea of adding new infrastructure to the university.

“Fill what we have to the brim and show me some serious accountability that you are going to be a good steward of every penny that you get,” Pafford, the mom, said.

Despite all the measure’s marketing, Slayton, the grandfather, said he just didn’t understand how the tax would work.

“To me, it's like Home Depot saying ‘We lost money. Can we get a quarter of a percent sales tax increase to help us out?’” Slayton said.

They also didn’t like the idea of another tax on top of everything else they already pay for.

“The one thing we have going for us here in Fresno is we have a decent cost of living for the state of California,” Pafford said. “But you start nickel and diming us on taxes like that, we won’t.”

Pafford and Slayton are both registered Republicans, and Sepeda says he’s always leaned toward being an economic conservative.

Yet backers of Measure E, like Fresno area contractor Richard Spencer, point out that the measure’s success came down to who came out for the election. Spencer says conservatives are less likely to vote for a tax, and more likely to vote in primary elections.

“There's a certain voter in the primary,” said Spencer. “And he or she is not inclined towards taxes and generosity, I'll put it. The voter in the general election is much more inclined.”

Spencer is a Fresno-based businessman who helped write the measure. He also donated the greatest to the “Yes on Measure E” campaign –$1.7 million for its second try – according to Fresno County campaign records.

He owns several businesses, including Harris Construction, which he said takes on many projects involving local schools but would not have benefitted from Measure E projects at the university.

Spencer is also a trustee on the Fresno State Foundation Board of Governors. He said he recognizes concerns Sepeda’s family are more widespread in the county.

“We haven't got the right formula yet,” he said.

Oversight questions were high on list

Many concerns about the measure resided in the transparency of the tax revenue. For instance, there was concern from voters about who the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the Fresno State president, and the California State University Board of Trustees would choose to make up the committee that would manage the money coming in from the tax.

More pressing to some voters was the compensation of the committee, which would be decided by the committee members themselves. Tim Orman, a general consultant for the Measure E campaign, told KVPR earlier this spring that compensation could reach as much as the equivalent to the salary of an executive assistant to the Board of Supervisors — around $81,000 per year.

Other concerns included the 25-year timeline of the tax. Plus, the list of campus repairs and additions supplied in the measure was “proposed,” not binding, which worried many voters that the committee might prioritize, for instance, remodeling the university’s football stadium and not other pressing campus needs like electrical or plumbing renewals.

Spencer says those weren’t backers’ intentions.

The committee “was going to be given guard rails” to guide how the money would be spent, he said, in order to provide some flexibility to members without “tying their hands.”

“Well, that's precisely what the voter doesn't want,” Spencer said.

Fresno State deals with ‘episodic’ funding

Confusion among the public also surrounds Fresno State’s finances and the monetary intricacies of the measure. For example, although the measure would have supported Fresno State, the university wasn’t allowed to promote it – that presumably avoided a financial conflict of interest, but it also raised questions among voters of who was really behind the measure and may benefit from it.

Many who voted no also felt they already paid enough to the university through their state taxes.

The inner workings of Fresno State’s finances are complex. Tuition and student fees are set by the CSU’s Board of Trustees, which also develops a budget for each of its 23 campuses. Every fall, the board submits a draft of the budget to the governor, which is reviewed and analyzed by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and Department of Finance before being voted on by the legislature and signed into law in the annual state budget.

At each campus, tuition and fees only go so far. They pay for a portion of faculty and staff pay, as well as campus operating costs, and the rest comes from the CSU’s general fund. Large-scale capital expenditures are primarily funded by the CSU Capital Outlay program, which is allocated from the state’s general fund.

A 2023 report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, however, shows that those funding sources aren’t keeping up with the need for repairs–at Fresno State or across the CSU system.

“From 2017‑18 to 2022‑23, CSU’s backlog [of capital renewal projects] for academic facilities and infrastructure grew by $2.4 billion [60 percent],” reads the report.

Twenty out of the CSU’s 23 campuses are listed as being in poor facility condition, with Fresno State ranking 8th worst.

The report also says neither the state nor the CSU system has a long-term plan to address repairs to existing infrastructure. Since 2015, investments from the state into deferred maintenance averaged $98 million per year – across the entire CSU system. Two of those years, payments dropped to $0.

“One‑time state funding for capital renewal has been episodic, with large amounts sometimes provided when the state budget has a surplus versus no funds provided in other years,” the report reads. “With such volatility, campuses have difficulty planning for capital renewal projects in advance and putting in place adequate staffing to implement those projects.”

A third Measure E? Not in minds of voters

Sepeda points to a hole in the exterior wall of a modular classroom on campus. Older classrooms also have aging appliances like swamp coolers.
Rachel Livinal
Sepeda points to a hole in the exterior wall of a modular classroom on campus. Older classrooms also have aging appliances like swamp coolers.

All of this, Spencer says, leaves campus supporters few choices for raising funds for campus improvements – especially because, even when funding is available from the state, Spencer argues that CSU leadership doesn’t always respond quickly to the changing needs of individual schools.

Spencer says his team plans to bring Measure E back in a future election.

But the campaign wants to change some things for next time around, in accordance with voters’ complaints.

Spencer says they are considering shortening the lifespan of the tax from 25 to 10 years, which would reduce the $1.5 billion price tag to about $700 million. He also suggested the committee members in charge of managing funds be unpaid volunteers.

He also says he wants to legally tie about 20 of the projects from the recommended project list to the measure “so that the measure is not nebulous.”

But he said the mixed reputation of the measure remains an issue they will have to tackle.

In a statement to KVPR, Jiménez-Sandoval said the university still has the public’s trust and the measure “brought Fresno State's needs to the forefront,” which they’ll “continue to leverage.”

Sepeda doesn’t need to know what the changes are for the new measure. He says he still wouldn’t vote for it, saying he and his family don’t trust either the university or the measure. He thinks most university students feel the same, after having observed what feels like never-ending construction already happening on campus.

“Since I've been here, we get emails every semester saying, ‘Oh, the construction will be done this semester.’ ‘Oh, it'll be done this semester,’” he said. “And it's like the boy who cried wolf.”

He says ultimately the campus’s poor condition affects his mental health. He wants to feel proud about his Alma Mater.

He just doesn’t feel county residents should be the ones to pay for improvements themselves.

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