Fresno Youths Left Out of City Budget ... Again

OPINION EDITORIAL | June 2, 2014 | by Cesar Casamayor 

Mayor Ashley Swearengin is optimistic about the city's nearly $1 billion budget.

Among other things, the budget pays down debt, adds staff to the police and fire departments and allots money for street improvements and road repairs.

There's nothing wrong with the city spending money on these services, and now is the time. Fresno's debt swelled to nearly $40 million and the police and fire departments are understaffed.

But there is something wrong when a mayor brags about a billion-dollar budget that makes very little investment in our young people.

When is it the right time to invest in Fresno's young citizens? Let's temper this optimism with a bit of reality.

The median age in the city of Fresno is 29, and nearly 1 in 5 of our city's residents is under 25.

What message is the city sending to these future leaders and employees by drafting a billion-dollar budget that appears to leave them to fend for themselves? Failing to invest in young people today will only lead to a bleaker future for Fresno.

Providing resources to a wide variety of youth programs — focusing on recreation, education, community involvement, employment and social organizations — is a key part of crime prevention, and it is much more cost effective than just hiring more police officers. When you offer a young person a safe place to go and something productive to do, the entire city will benefit, and it will also help prevent the "brain drain" that occurs when our children leave Fresno and move to the Bay Area or Southern California.

Sadly, though, we are giving young people fewer and fewer reasons to stay and contribute to our city. Our city budget can address that.

According to The Bee, Swearengin expects enough money to "boost key services, accelerate the paring of internal debt and goose entrepreneurial ambitions."

So more recreational programs for youths, better and cleaner parks for Fresno families and more overall investment in our youth do not count as "key services"? Then what does?

And it's not necessarily about a commitment to any one program or service — yes, a robust jobs program for youths is definitely needed, and more funds and staff for recreation services would be welcome — but rather it's about showing a consistent and genuine commitment to a young and abandoned population that faces staggering poverty, lives in the riskiest city in the state and breathes dirty air every day.

The Bee says the general fund budget is $286.4 million, nearly 6% more than two years ago, and general fund money is spent at elected officials' discretion and goes mainly to police, fire and parks.

The mayor and city leaders have a chance to make decisions during this budget cycle that will help improve the life and future of young Fresnans right away.

But the real challenge facing the city is changing how it regards youths now and in the future. This is the real test, and change is never easy — but it is necessary.

Our city will continue to be at the bottom of every dubious list as long we continue to treat our youths and their needs as afterthoughts instead of recognizing them as our future.

When the city drafts a budget, the goals should always include providing greater hope for our youths by expanding opportunities for them to learn new skills, develop healthy lifestyles and lead productive adult lives. The budget should also involve many elements of the community by promoting partnerships that effectively collaborate to serve youths and ensure that young citizens are Fresno's highest priority.

Youths are valuable resources to develop; they are not problems to be solved. Our young people want to grow and thrive, but they need opportunities and appropriate adult involvement, guidance and investment.

During a recent news conference at City Hall to discuss the budget, Mayor Swearengin said, "We did it. We survived."

But who is really surviving, and for how long?


Cesar Casamayor is youth organizer for Fresno Building Healthy Communities

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