With Measure G defeated, Swearengin tries again to fix budget hole

The Fresno BeeJune 12, 2013 

Fresno voters have rejected Measure G, saving the city jobs of nearly 100 trash drivers and handing Mayor Ashley Swearengin a stinging political defeat.

But failure of the trash outsourcing initiative could mean fewer cops or other city employees losing their jobs as officials hustle to fix a big hole in the budget.

The No side in Measure G has jumped to an insurmountable 801-vote lead, according to a Wednesday afternoon update from the Fresno County elections department.

About 600 late absentee ballots remain to be counted from the June 4 special election.

"It's a victory," said Marina Magdaleno, a union leader who represents trash haulers. "The people have voted and they've showed that this is the service they want."

City Council President Blong Xiong, who joined Council Members Sal Quintero and Oliver Baines in leading the anti-outsourcing forces, said he's pleased with the outcome.

"But we've still got a lot of work ahead of us," Xiong said. "We still have to come up with money."

Swearengin, who bore the burden of selling Measure G, addressed the council shortly before the vote update with a gracious nod to the inevitable.

"It has been a dramatic spring in Fresno, to say the least," Swearengin said.

To her Measure G opponents, Swearengin said, "We disagree on the issue, but I respect your points of view."

To the nearly 60,000 Fresnans who cast ballots, Swearengin said, "I am committed, as I know you are, to moving our city forward and finding the best course we possibly can. I congratulate everyone for a spirited debate."

Fresno's year-long outsourcing war became history with Wednesday's update. More than 105,000 residential customers of the city's garbage service will continue getting the trash pickup they've had for years.

The focus now shifts to City Hall where the council and Swearengin must try to figure out how to pay the bills in a world without outsourcing.

Revised budget: Read it here.

Swearengin had wanted to hand the trash service to Mid Valley Disposal in return for a $1.5 million signing bonus and a net boost to the general fund of about $2.5 million a year in franchise fees.

The general fund, money spent at the discretion of city leaders, has struggled with four years of budget holes. The gap in the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is expected to be millions.

Swearengin has already pitched to the council a $276 million general fund budget that includes Mid Valley's money. The death of Measure G means city leaders have less than a month to come up with an alternative.

Most of the general fund goes to police and fire, with a smattering for things such as parks and administration (mayor's office, city manager's office, council members' offices).

The challenge is finding $2.85 million to fill next year's projected gap. Swearengin on Wednesday told the council she can find $1.13 million with some creative juggling. For example, the city will get more federal Community Development Block Grant funds than expected. Some of this can go to the parks department, freeing $442,000 for the general fund.

But that still leaves about $1.7 million to find. Swearengin offered two options to the council.

The first is the loss of 25 sworn police officers through attrition over the next year. The police have a no-layoff clause, but tend to lose two officers a month to retirement or job changes.

Swearengin, with Police Chief Jerry Dyer nodding in agreement from the audience, said this is the worst option. Fresno had 849 sworn officers a few years ago, but is now down to 717 positions. Swearengin said a smaller force would weaken public safety.

The second option is elimination of 49 civilian positions, seven currently vacant. These positions are found throughout City Hall -- the mayor's office, city manager's office, council members' offices, city attorney, city clerk, parks, police and fire, to name a few.

City Manager Mark Scott said job bumping could result in some employees staying with the city in different positions. He said there could be 25 or more layoffs when the bumping is done.

This civilian layoff option includes program changes, Swearengin said. For example, the Senior Hot Meals program would lose three of its five sites -- Mary Ella Brown Community Center, Senior Citizen Village and Mosqueda Community Center.

The civilian layoff option "is our best recommendation for how we get through the next year," Swearengin said.

Wednesday was the third day of council budget hearings. They could continue for weeks in light of City Hall's complex money woes and politics.

The city charter requires the mayor to present an annual budget, but responsibility for adopting it by June 30 lies with the council. Four votes are enough to approve a budget change, five to override a mayoral veto.

Most council members on Wednesday kept a low profile. Xiong, the mayor's main antagonist during the outsourcing battle, thanked Swearengin for her tactful thoughts on Measure G. Council Member Lee Brand said he doesn't want to see the ranks of police officers get smaller. Baines also circled back to Measure G, saying the fight "was a disagreement, not a personal issue."

Eventually, though, the council must embrace Swearengin's recommendation or come up with its own plan. No council member so far has hinted at a plan that avoids layoffs, fewer services, higher taxes or more borrowing.

Perhaps the most intriguing alternative to Swearengin's plan is an offer from the powerful Fresno Police Officers Association. President Jacky Parks has said his members would make contract concessions with a general fund value of up to $9 million in return for an extension of 18 months on a contract that expires in 2015.

Parks and Swearengin seldom see eye-to-eye on contract issues. Parks refuses to give something for nothing. Swearengin worries about contract extensions that prove too expensive in the long-term.

Swearengin and the council are expected to go into closed session at Thursday's council meeting to discuss a counter-offer to Parks.

Home trash pickup: What's next

If Measure G had passed, the city of Fresno's home trash customers were promised a 17.6% rate cut on a typical monthly bill of $25.37. Outsourcing opponents said that cut was too good to be true.

Public Utilities Director Patrick Wiemiller at a Tuesday budget hearing told the City Council that home trash customers will continue to pay their usual bill. He said the department will soon need some new trucks. He said rates could change.

The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6272, ghostetter@fresnobee.com, kalexander@fresnobee.com or @KurtisInValley on Twitter. Read Hostetter's City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

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