Prominent builder behind sales tax increase ballot measure to fund Fresno State upgrades

CRAIG KOHLRUSS/Fresno Bee file
·4 min read

A committee led by construction company owner Richard Spencer is collecting signatures to put a countywide sales tax increase measure before voters to pay for academic and facilities upgrades at Fresno State, including to an aging Bulldog Stadium.

“We think within a couple of weeks we’ll have enough signatures,” said Tim Orman, former chief of staff for Fresno mayors Jerry Dyer and Lee Brand and a longtime political consultant who was hired to lead the effort. Orman said the petition drive had already collected around 15,000 signatures — more than half of the needed 25,000 to get the measure on the November general election ballot. Paid signature-gatherers in front of big-box stores are part of the effort.

The tax increase would raise the county’s sales and use tax by 0.2%. It would run for 20 years and generate an estimated annual average of $36 million.

Its stated use would be to expand the nursing, agriculture, criminology and engineering/STEM programs at the university, provide scholarships for local and low-income students and funding to repair and upgrade campus infrastructure, including a Bulldog Stadium in dire need of renovation.

At least two-thirds of the tax funds must be spent on academic programs and facilities and no more than one-third on women’s and men’s athletics facilities.

“We’ve identified severe shortages in nursing in the area,” Orman said. “We lost nurses due to COVID-19. They just haven’t had the capacity there, so one of the main things it would do is expand the nursing program.

The tax would apply to the gross receipts of all retailers’ sales or all tangible personal property sold at retail in the county, and to the sales price of tangible personal property purchased from any retailers for the storage, use or other consumption in the county of that property. In Reedley, the tax would be 0.025%.

The measure also would establish a five-member citizens’ oversight committee appointed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, which would control the use of the tax funds to ensure they are used consistent with the measure, oversee the issuance of bonds and provide an annual audit report.

Timeline to make November ballot

The group behind the tax push is called the Fresno State Improvement Zone Committee. Spencer, a major donor to school bond campaigns in the past, is listed as the committee’s principal director, according to county documents. Spencer owns Harris Construction and Spencer Enterprises, among other business interests.

The committee was certified to start collecting signatures June 10.

Backers of any measure or initiative have 180 days to collect signatures, but for the Fresno County tax to make the November ballot there are about six weeks remaining to collect more than 25,000 verified signatures — 10% of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

A resolution also must be filed 88 days before the election.

“Because the resolution is due to me by Aug. 12, they have to get a certification of those signatures to the county Board of Supervisors prior to Aug. 12, and they have a meeting on July 12 and on Aug. 9,” Fresno County Clerk/Registrar of Voters James Kus said.

If the tax makes the November ballot, it would need 50% of the vote plus one to pass, Kus said.

Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval was unavailable to comment, but has said that upgrades to Bulldog Stadium and athletics facilities are a priority and has formed a task force to develop a plan to sustain competitive athletics success.

That plan is to focus on four areas, with infrastructure at the top of the list. The task force also is to explore revenue generation, the student-athlete experience and marketability of the Fresno State brand.

“We have had really incredible success in the past,” Jiménez-Sandoval told The Bee in November. “But within that I also started to see a pattern in which we strike it rich at one point and then the following seasons we’re not there. We’re not at that level. We can’t sustain a level of excellence throughout. We sustain a brand name, but the level of excellence has not been a constant throughout.

“In thinking about that I really want to come up with a proper approach that’s systematic and that’s educated about how we move together and forward in a sustained manner that provides athletics with the proper stability it needs to sustain its momentum, not just in football, but in the other sports, as well. We were a powerhouse in basketball. What do we do with that? What do we do with baseball? We were national champions in baseball. What do we do with our women’s sports? What do we do with the brand name that is Fresno State?”