Things are so bad at Fresno City Hall that it's swiping cash from the ailing Parks Department to help the struggling Convention Center pay its light bill.
It's as if bankrupt San Bernardino sent a bunch of money to bankrupt Stockton.
The $350,000 from Parks was supposed to fix up green space neglected in the 4-year-old economic downturn. It'll now go to a Convention Center PG&E bill that, even with the extra dough, remains nearly $400,000 in arrears.
The transfer of funds might be palatable if Parks were flush or the Convention Center on the mend.
Neither is close to reality.
Parks is so broke it depends on volunteers to clean the playgrounds. Many community centers are run by nonprofit organizations. Two proposed parks remain only a dream because City Hall has money to build but not maintain them.
Things are worse at the nearly 50-year-old city-owned Convention Center.
The five-facility complex in the southeast part of downtown will need more than $7.7 million from City Hall this year to stay afloat. The city has never paid a bonus to the center's management company because the center has never met its performance goals.
Millions were borrowed for renovations, yet the place still has the dated look and feel of the Swingin' '60s. The opening of Fresno State's Save Mart Center a decade ago staggered the Convention Center. The growth of Indian casinos throughout the Valley floored the place.
City Hall's spring budget hearings are just around the corner. There will be more needs than resources, as usual. High-profile issues such as residential trash services and citywide water rates are sure to get attention.
Yet, Parks and the Convention Center may best symbolize the budget's overall challenge.
On one hand, people need green space, so Parks must survive. And the Convention Center, like an underwater McMansion, can't be off-loaded because it has more debt than equity.
On the other hand, the sorry shape of Parks is a shame to a city long at the bottom of any municipal green-space-per-capita list. And the Convention Center will continue to cost millions in subsidies.
What to do?
"There's no good answer," Assistant City Manager/Parks Director Bruce Rudd says.
Adds Council Member Lee Brand: "We're swimming against the tide."
How the budget shuffle works: PG&E example
The Parks-Convention Center deal shows just how adaptable -- or slippery -- money can be in government.
The city normally charges a $5-per-car entry fee at regional parks such as Roeding and Woodward. It goes into the general fund, which is money spent at the discretion of city officials.
However, Rudd said, $2 of each $5 fee is squirreled away for parks maintenance. By the start of the new year, City Hall had about $900,000 in various accounts.
Two problems arose.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin's effort to outsource the city's residential trash service hit a snag. She wants to hand the city's 105,000 home trash accounts to Mid Valley Disposal in return for millions in annual franchise fees. The money is pivotal to helping fill short- and long-term general fund budget gaps, she said.
Several city unions and dozens of local activists fought the mayor. They got enough signatures of registered Fresno voters to put the issue -- outsourcing, yes or no? -- on a special-election ballot.
All this turmoil in a big city in a state already infamous for municipal bankruptcies upset Wall Street credit-rating agencies. Grades for some of Fresno's bonds tumbled toward junk status.
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