What's at stake?
The Clovis Rodeo got $200,000 of federal relief funds after deficits in two consecutive pandemic years. But did it need the money to stay afloat? Did Fresno County assess its claims to addressing equity with the funds?
This story is the first in Fresnoland’s ongoing series taking a deep dive into how local governments have spent pandemic relief dollars from the federal American Rescue Plan program.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic handed the Clovis Rodeo Association its first annual loss in a decade when it had to cancel its flagship event. After bringing the Clovis Rodeo back in-person with limited crowd capacity the following year, the association ended up with an even bigger annual loss.
Despite two years of deficits, the Clovis Horse Show and Festival Association, the nonprofit organization behind the rodeo, wasn’t at the brink of collapse — mostly because it had more than $1 million in cash heading into the pandemic.
But that didn’t stop the rodeo from applying to be a subrecipient of federal pandemic relief dollars through Fresno County. In June 2022, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved reimbursing the rodeo for 2022 expenses at the sum of $200,000, using federal relief funds.
“It’s going back to the next rodeo — the livestock, the security, the supplies,” said Ron Dunbar, the rodeo’s president. “Without that fund, we wouldn’t be able to do what we like doing, what we’re used to.”
While the county is allowed to use federal relief funds to address the negative economic impact of the pandemic on local businesses, it brings into question Fresno County’s process in awarding organizations funds through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal program which gave $350 billion to local governments across the country to rebuild their economies.
Fresno County officials did not assess whether organizations that applied for funding actually needed federal relief dollars in order to stay afloat, county staff told Fresnoland. County officials also did not develop a metric to evaluate organizations’ equity aims in order to evaluate their impact on underserved communities or to compare applicants with each other.
Over the last two years, the county got $194 million in ARPA dollars from the federal government. Eligible uses of the federal funds include revenue replacement for government agencies, premium pay for essential workers, upgrading water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure, and financial assistance to businesses dealing with the negative economic impacts of COVID-19. Local governments that receive funding can either use the funds themselves or disburse the funds to subrecipients — both of which Fresno County has done since last year.
The unprecedented infusion of cash for local governments had great potential to bridge equity gaps, considering it didn’t have the typical constraints of annual government budgets. Last year, President Joe Biden even put out a 301-page report on how the ARPA program was his first opportunity to advance equity through major legislation.
Fresno County received 47 applications from organizations seeking funding from its ARPA subrecipient program. In May 2022, four county staff members evaluated whether applications met eligibility requirements from the federal government, said county spokesperson Sonja Dosti. She added that the five county supervisors’ chief staffers also weighed in on the process, evaluating whether applications aligned with county guiding principles on how to spend federal relief dollars.
They forwarded a recommended list of organizations that should get funding to the county’s Ad-Hoc Committee on ARPA, which was composed of two people: supervisors Nathan Magsig and Steve Brandau.
The two county officials approved and sent a priority list of organizations to the Board of Supervisors, which they subsequently approved in June 2022. The Clovis Rodeo was one of the 22 organizations accepted into the program. It was also one of three event-centered subrecipients — including the Big Fresno Fair and the Turkey Testicle Festival.
Among the 25 programs that didn’t get funding, one sought to increase education on voting, digital literacy and broadband infrastructure for underserved communities. Another program sought to boost enrollment in public programs — like CalWORKs, Medi-Cal and CalFresh — for residents in geographically isolated parts of Fresno County.
Pandemic brought down rodeo's cash totals, but not to the brink of collapse, tax documents show
After two consecutive years in deficit — losing about $265,000 over 2020 and 2021 — the Clovis Horse Show and Festival Association still had more than $930,000 in cash. That’s largely because over the five years prior to the pandemic, the rodeo earned an average of $1.56 million in annual revenue and took home an average of about $277,165 in annual profits, which it used every year to either plump its cash accounts or acquire more land or property, according to the rodeo’s tax documents obtained by Fresnoland.
Alfreda Sebasto, a spokesperson for the rodeo, emailed a statement to Fresnoland, explaining that the rodeo’s annual cash totals are not cash reserves, since they aren’t entirely retained throughout the year and are used for operational expenses required to put on the rodeo every year. Sebasto did not respond to a request for the rodeo's 2022 gross revenue and total expenses.
Fresno County’s selection process for ARPA subrecipient funding did not include comparing organizations to each other in terms of their current resources and whether that tied into their overall need for federal relief money, said George Uc, an ARPA analyst at Fresno County. Instead, the county’s process was mainly focused on assessing applications for whether they met guiding principles and priorities set by Fresno County officials, which include addressing negative outcomes exacerbated by the pandemic and its immediate impacts.
"It's not that one application is better than the other,” Uc told Fresnoland. “It was more of identifying those that wouldn't duplicate funding sources and achieve the board's principles."
Every organization that applied for funding had to explain how it would “promote strong, equitable growth, and racial equity among impacted communities in Fresno County.” In response to that equity question, the Clovis Rodeo stated it does not discriminate against anyone, strives to be a family-friendly event and has affordable tickets between $20 and $35, according to its application for subrecipient funding, which Fresnoland obtained through a California Public Records Act Request.
In its application, the rodeo did not highlight a specific community or underserved group that its programming would specifically benefit, but did note how doing “outreach to underserved audiences, local schools and all interested is a part of the Association's core mission.”
Uc said that equity was assessed across all 47 applications for ARPA funding, however, the county did not develop a metric to compare the rigor of each organization’s equity aims with each other. He added that equity was assessed by understanding how each organization would have a lasting, transformational impact if given federal relief dollars.
County staff understood the rodeo’s equity aims as generating $15 million in revenue for the region, which helps businesses that depend on the event to make profit. He also said the rodeo is a boon for hotels, since it brings people from all over — including Merced, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — to Clovis.
"I think looking at (the Clovis Rodeo) from travel, hospitality sectors — what it does — that's the equitable part of it,” Uc said.
Are county officials addressing inequities with ARPA dollars?
Fresno County’s approach to equity with ARPA dollars has been strongly criticized in the past. The California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, a statewide health advocacy organization, researched and analyzed how 12 of California’s largest counties spent ARPA funds in 2021. It gave Fresno County the lowest score, an “F,” since the county hadn’t even acknowledged racial inequities or underserved communities in its 2021 ARPA recovery plan report.
“The Board of Supervisors came up with these broad principles of how they want to use ARPA funding on their website and there's no mention of equity at all in the broad principles,” said Weiyu Zhang, an associate policy director at the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
Since then, Fresno County seems to have improved its approach somewhat, Zhang told Fresnoland, because its 2022 ARPA recovery report is much more detailed in terms of highlighting racial groups in Fresno County and social vulnerability statistics. However, she added that nothing actually keeps counties in check for using ARPA dollars to address equity issues.
"There's really just the power of communities collectively calling out their elected officials to apply public pressure," Zhang said.
That’s not to say none of Fresno County’s ARPA dollars have been used to address equity gaps. The county earmarked about $5 million for improvements to water infrastructure in Mendota and Malaga.
Furthermore, in 2022, county officials earmarked $150,000 to improve a park in El Porvenir and earmarked another $1.6 million to improve the community center in Lanare — both of which impact two rural unincorporated communities in the county.
“It's thanks to persistence and the community being involved in this decision-making process that I believe this was able to happen,” said Mariana Alvarenga, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “So really just applauding the community and thanking the county for really listening — but also encouraging them to be more critical in thinking about what more can be done in the county.”
Alvarenga said that includes addressing broadband issues and further unmet infrastructure needs impacting unincorporated communities. But by now, $170.9 million in ARPA dollars have already been allocated by the county's board of supervisors, leaving about $23 million up for grabs.
"It's frustrating to think about ARPA funding things like the Clovis Rodeo,” Alvarenga said. “We believe that there are more pressing needs that impact people's day to day lives that should be addressed with these funds.”