Few would describe Fresno City Hall's Measure F as exciting. It's all about codifying in the city's governing document some spending rules for elected officials.
But no one would say the ballot initiative's backstory is a yawner.
Fresnans on Nov. 6 will decide whether to approve a three-part tweak of the city charter that would change the way City Council members and mayors handle public money.
The first part is an amendment requiring the City Council to create a policy for budget reserves.
The next two parts are additions to the charter. The council would have to create a policy for issuing and managing new debt. And the council would have to create a policy that outlines the research steps -- called "due diligence" -- to be taken before City Hall loans someone $1 million or more.
Rainy day funds, bonds, subsidies -- no wonder economics is called the "dismal science." But Measure F's authors say the charter change is vital to putting City Hall back on solid financial ground and keeping it there.
"Five or ten years from now, there will be another grand project that everyone feels good about," Council Member Lee Brand said. "Putting these policies at the charter level will make it much more difficult for future councils and mayors to make ill-advised decisions."
Council Member Andreas Borgeas said the last four years taught Fresnans and City Hall some hard lessons about financial prudence. With Measure F, Borgeas said, "we're going to make certain that the mistakes never happen again."
Mistakes in government are a judgment call. But City Hall's financial track record over the past decade clearly suggests some reform is in order.
Brand and Borgeas, along with Mayor Ashley Swearengin, came to City Hall in January 2009. The real estate bubble had popped and the Great Recession was in full swing. City revenues already were falling.
This governing challenge was compounded by spending decisions made when money seemed to grow on trees.
City Hall had guaranteed a total of $20 million of bank loans to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and the Granite Park sports complex. Both loans went bad as the recession deepened and the city had to pay them off.
The city went on a borrowing binge itself, issuing bond deals totaling tens of millions of dollars for parks, infrastructure and public safety buildings. City officials had counted on an ever-booming real estate market to repay investors.
Then, with bills coming due, city officials several years ago rushed to the sugar bowl where they thought they had squirreled away plenty of emergency cash -- only to find more bills. There was about $15 million in the general fund reserve, but city officials discovered that City Hall for two decades had been quietly dipping into other accounts to cover its spendthrift ways. The reserve was wiped out in an instant and city officials were faced with repaying millions to those accounts.
City Hall responded to the budget crisis in three complementary ways.
Layoffs, attrition and service reductions were the most obvious. The city's workforce today is about 25% smaller than four years ago. The Police Department has lost about 100 sworn officers, largely through retirement. The Parks Department is a shell of its former self.
The City Council approved new policies for doing business. Most were written by Brand, For example, his Better Business Act forced the Fresno Grizzlies to open their financial books to city officials before the council would agree to a restructured lease at city-owned Chukchansi Park.
And with Borgeas pushing the hardest, the council in 2010 decided it was time to see if the city charter needed repairing. The city began its strong-mayor form of government in January 1997. Perhaps more than a decade of experience had revealed some flaws, Borgeas said.
The result was a nine-person volunteer Charter Review Committee that held public hearings for a half-year and chewed on 55 possible amendments. In the end, the council and Swearengin decided to bring to voters only the three proposed changes that have been combined into Measure F. All three reflect the work of earlier policies written by Brand and approved by the council.
City Hall finances remain precarious. The city's credit ratings are almost at the junk level, there is a potential budget gap of millions and the unions are smarting over further efforts to cut wages and outsource jobs. For the first time since the real-estate market tanked, city officials don't blanch at public talk of bankruptcy.
Brand and Borgeas don't claim miracles for Measure F. Borgeas won't even be around City Hall to see if it generates early returns. A first-termer, he won a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in the June primary and will switch jobs in January.
But Brand and Borgeas do promise that Fresnans will come to appreciate Measure F's safeguards. The initiative's only problem, Brand said, is that it doesn't come with a time-traveling mechanism.
"Fresno would be in much better financial condition today if these policies had been in the charter long ago."