‘Unacceptable risk’ or investment in hope? Sacramento City Council to vote on Measure U funds

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento City Council members plan on voting Tuesday on whether to approve the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

If that sentence makes your eyes glaze over— keep reading, because at stake is a $200 million dollar investment using your tax dollars that some are calling “an unacceptable risk.”

In selling Sacramentans on that proposed sales tax hike called Measure U, which voters ultimately approved in November, Mayor Darrell Steinberg promised to spend some of that money on something called an “inclusive economy.”

But what does that even mean?

Les Simmons, pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center and respected community leader, shared his thoughts with ABC10.

“An inclusive economy focuses on jobs. It focuses on opportunity. It focuses on resources. It reaches, not only these places that look very attractive, but also those communities that historically have been left out,” he said.

Simmons is working on a piece of that broader inclusive economy puzzle.

He’s working to convert the old Cal Skate off Mack Road, an area where he grew up and now lives, into the Simmons Community Center.

It’s a community effort. SMUD will donate lighting. The Sacramento Kings donated the basketball and skating rink floor.

“One of their NBA floors, a fan favorite,” Simmons said.

The Simmons Center will be more than just a place for fun.

“There will be jobs here for young folks to have. Jobs for families to have. Health and educational workshops, alternatives-to-violence workshops, workshops on SAT and ACT, the prep for college, that’ll happen here, and STEM will happen here,” Simmons listed. “All kind of things that just come into a community that allows for growth, allows for opportunity, allows a person to dream.”

In a memo (page 8) to city council, Mayor Steinberg said an inclusive economy means investing “in all of our communities, many of which have been long neglected…. into areas including affordable housing and underserved neighborhoods and commercial corridors.”

One of those corridors sits along Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento, near Fruitridge Road.

That’s the location of longstanding community organization La Familia and its Maple Neighborhood Center.

“This was a closed elementary school that was closed in 2013. In 2015, with a lot of community support, we re-purposed the site and made it into a neighborhood center,” said Rachel Rios, executive director of La Familia.  

More than a dozen organizations use this neighborhood hub, from Girl Scouts to groups that offer GED and ESL classes. STEM education and technology literacy are also taught here to people of all ages.

“It’s about lifting up the whole neighborhood. So as individual community members have access to different opportunities and employment, they bring that prosperity back to their community, and that community in general, as a whole, get lifted up,” Rios said.

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La Familia is working to purchase a blighted lot across the street to turn it into a space for career services and employment training called The Opportunity Center.

“We’ll be focused on business development, on workforce skills, on job training,” Rios explained.

They just need a million dollars to close the deal—money that could come from an inclusive economy fund.

The mayor wants to commit $200 million dollars over five years to help fund projects like La Familia’s Opportunity Center and the Simmons Community Center, with the idea they’ll create jobs and opportunities that will ultimately lead to a broader tax base for the city.

However, city council documents say that even with the extra $50 million coming in each year from the new Measure U sales tax increase, “the city is facing increasing pressures going forward that must be addressed in future years…including….CalPERS pension costs.”

The Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522 worries putting dollars toward an inclusive economy will take money away from essential services like fire, police, parks and libraries.

Robert Padilla, Union spokesperson and fire fighter, said “so far we have not seen any actual data about how any of these ideas are going to raise the City’s tax base in the future…(Mayor Steinberg) has also not provided any timelines of when the tax base will improve and how those ‘new’ dollars can be invested back into essential services…This is an unacceptable risk to take with an unproven concept.”

Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522 added a new photo.

City Councilmember Jay Schenerir is supportive of inclusive economic development.

“We think we’re going to grow our economy through this and then we can pay for those things that we need to do as far as city services,” he said, adding that the budget up for approval Tuesday includes $10 million to improve city services—including police and fire. “Those things aren’t being ignored, but our priority right now needs to be investment in our neighborhoods.”

No, there isn’t exact data showing how many jobs or dollars investing in an inclusive economy will yield. However, people already doing the work in these communities said they’ve seen the fruits of their labor on sometimes shoestring budgets, and an infusion of funding would only magnify those results.

“My background is in juvenile justice, and so I can tell you, we do know that people who are employed are less likely to commit crimes,” Rios said. “We know that young people who have opportunities, who have access to education are less likely to get involved in…substance abuse or criminal activity, so we do know that these do benefit the whole community.”

Simmons agrees.

“When you look at crimes starting to come down, when you look at employment and the kind of measure of income bracket within a community coming up — I think that’s going to come,” he said.

Simmons calls inclusive economic development an investment in hope.

“I think it’s a very righteous thing,” he said. “It’s not an overnight thing. It takes time, but it does take targeted investment.”

It’s a classic example of how a rising tide lifts all boats, he said.

“I think we’re going to see some major things happen in our city,” Simmons said. “I think we’re going to be doing something great together.”

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WATCH MORE: Measure U tax dollars not enough, Sacramento considers $250M in bonds | Connect the Dots