Foon Rhee

How does Sacramento get to economic justice after Stephon Clark? Activism, a smart plan and lots of money

Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, confronts Mayor Darrell Steinberg at the March 27 City Council meeting. Steinberg is pledging to make progress on the economic justice called for by protestors after the police killing of Stephon Clark.
Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, confronts Mayor Darrell Steinberg at the March 27 City Council meeting. Steinberg is pledging to make progress on the economic justice called for by protestors after the police killing of Stephon Clark. Sacramento Bee file

They weren’t marching in the streets or protesting at City Hall for economic justice in Sacramento, or holding signs with images of Stephon Clark.

Instead, they were listening to national experts on urban policy – and no one even mentioned Clark until the very end.

But their goal is the same: inclusive economic growth that lifts all people, especially those in poor neighborhoods such as Meadowview, where Clark was shot and killed by police in his grandmother’s backyard.

 
Opinion

For Sacramento to become a place where many more share in prosperity, it’s going to take both intense activism to keep pressure on city officials and the kind of wonky analysis on display at a town hall Thursday night for Project Prosper, the city’s neighborhood investment plan that was in the works well before Clark’s death on March 18.

It may have been tough to hear, but the experts made clear what Sacramento is up against. The city is lagging behind in creating higher-wage jobs in growth industries, warned Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. And the median wage for African-Americans here has declined since 2011, widening the gap with whites and Asians.

Education drives prosperity, and while the percentage of Sacramentans with college degrees is average compared to similar cities, it ranks second worst in keeping college graduates in the area, said Joe Cortright, director of the City Observatory think tank in Portland.

On the more hopeful side, the experts mentioned some programs working elsewhere that could be models for Sacramento: a college access partnership in Louisville, a food manufacturing network in Chicago, youth apprenticeships in Georgia.

While it’s worthwhile to get advice from smart people on economic development, it’s just as important to listen to “local experts” – residents who know, for example, which neighborhoods are grappling with gentrification. City officials emphasized they are paying attention. They held three public meetings attended by about 300 residents, whose three top priorities were free community college, more support for small businesses and more affordable housing. The people are right – those would all boost and broaden economic growth in the long run more than any single project.

When the city puts out a strategy in late summer, the right plan is essential. So is the money to follow through.

In early May, city officials will unveil a November ballot measure that will likely ask voters to increase the local sales tax by a half cent, which would raise about $47 million a year for neighborhood investment and other needs. But to keep the city’s finances afloat, they’ll also seek voter approval to renew Measure U, the existing half-cent sales tax that pays for 285 police and fire jobs.

There are some other potential revenue sources. With recreational marijuana now legal in California, some are pushing to earmark some of the taxes on pot cultivation and retail sales for youth programs and economic development in poor neighborhoods, particularly since pot businesses are concentrating in them.

While the federal tax cut bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last December is an egregious giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, it did include a provision for “opportunity zones” – which offer breaks on capital gains if the money is invested in “distressed communities.”

In Sacramento, Meadowview is among the neighborhoods in line to be an opportunity zone. While details are still being worked out, Congressman Ami Bera says he’s reaching out to community banks to set up an opportunity zone fund so that local wealthy investors could see their money benefit Sacramento.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the only one to mention Clark by name at the town hall, is staking his success on making inclusive economic growth part of the city’s core mission. And he isn’t shying away from setting ambitious goals.

“Now is the time to think big and think bold,” the mayor said in his closing remarks. He said he won’t see Project Prosper as a success unless every 20-year-old in Sacramento is either in college, an apprenticeship or already in a high-paying job.

If Steinberg pulls that off, that should please both angry protestors and policy wonks.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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