Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer's bet on a nearly $13 million regional training center is paying off.
It wasn't a sure thing. Business got off to a slow start. The place opened in the middle of the Great Recession. City officials fretted about the center's huge bond debt.
But the center has found its legs. It pulls in more than $1 million a year in training fees and reimbursements, easily covers its portion of debt service and, most importantly, delivers training to law enforcement agencies across the state.
Dyer breathes a sigh of relief as he sums up the center's activities with just one word.
The center sits on a 78-acre site near the city's sewer farm in southwest Fresno. The idea was born in 2008, at the tail end of then-Mayor Alan Autry's tenure at City Hall.
The sorry state of Fresno's public safety facilities was a contentious issue during Autry's two terms. City officials decided to borrow $43 million. The fire department, among other things, would get better firehouses. A state-of-the-art regional training center was at the top of Dyer's wish list.
As with so much of the Autry-era borrowing, the bond's debt service (more than $3 million annually) was to be handled by a constantly-expanding economy. The general fund would pick up a portion of the bill. Public-safety fees paid by new development would cover the rest.
Fees generated by the training center would offset some of the general fund's burden. It was the classic "you got to spend money to make money" formula so popular at City Hall during the Autry era.
Events exposed the formula's downside. The housing market imploded and developer fees dried up. General fund revenues declined but bond debt remained. Dyer's center opened its doors at the same time law enforcement agencies tightened their belts.
The public-safety bond's politics were as complex as its finances. But the bottom line for Dyer was frustration. His beloved training center got its share of criticism, some from City Council members and reporters. He thought it all unfair.
Then the recession began to recede. After years of cuts, Fresno is hiring extra cops and dispatchers. Training budgets at other law enforcement agencies are getting a boost.
The revival is felt at the training center. Monthly fees from outside agencies have risen about 10% recently to about $55,000. This and developer fees are enough to cover police's portion of the bond bill, city officials said.
The center opened in September 2010. It features classrooms, a high-tech firing range, a three-story structure with removable walls to practice building searches and road courses to hone driving skills.
Dyer in those early months had few high-profile customers other than the state Air National Guard. He now brags about the FBI, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the state department of consumer affairs as customers.
Dyer said the center has hosted two regional SWAT training sessions. He said the center will soon train 30 K-9 units from throughout the state.
And Fresno officers are training at the center using the department's share of targeted training money from the state -- more than $500,000 last year.
"I've always felt we are undertrained in law enforcement," Dyer said. "When times are strained, and we have less money in the general fund, we start cutting corners. I was fearful we'd cut law enforcement training. We have not done that."
The training center has supporters.
Lt. Kenny Park, the Vallejo Police Department's external training manager, told Fresno police in an email that his officers have high praise for the training center.
"For what it's worth, I wanted to extend my thanks for the quality instruction that Fresno PD is providing," Park said. "You guys in Fresno are squared away and it shows in the presentation of courses thus far."
Fresno Police Auditor Rick Rasmussen earlier this year said it appeared Fresno cops were sometimes firing too many rounds during officer-involved shootings. Rasmussen in his most recent report said this trend has been reversed, "most likely due to an increased awareness by the officers as well as increased training in this arena."
Assistant City Manager Renena Smith said the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin views the training center as an invaluable asset.
"It's public service and it's safety for our officers," Smith said. "We owe them that."
Dyer said the center's improving finances have him thinking about growth. High on his list is hiring more outside lecturers so the center can expand its offerings.
The center's success, Dyer said, won't tempt him to say "I told you so" to his critics. But he comes close.
"I feel vindicated."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.