Swearengin: New Fresno budget adds firefighters, police dispatchers

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is pitching a new budget that focuses on improving public safety, creating jobs, building a reserve and paying off in-house debts.

Swearengin expects to soon present a proposed Fiscal Year 2015 general fund budget of $287.3 million, up from the $286.9 million projected for this fiscal year.

The fiscal year begins July 1. The general fund is money spent at the discretion of elected officials.

Swearengin today will give the City Council an update on her spending ideas. In an interview with The Bee, she listed some of her budget highlights:

-- Maintain the current level of 711 sworn police-officer positions, but hire 30 police cadets and seven emergency services dispatchers.

-- Add eight firefighting positions, increasing the total to 311.

-- Support job-creation efforts by adding a few positions for customer service and economic development.

-- Fund to a limited degree the equipment-replacement program.

"We're trying to rebuild the city and restore our financial health in a balanced approach," Swearengin said.

No politician ever went wrong in Fresno by being friendly to public safety and business. It's the rest of Swearengin's budget plan that figures to draw strong opinions from the council.

This budget has a cash cushion for the first time in years. City Hall must figure out what to do with it.

Swearengin has no doubt. She wants to pay off about $16.5 million of internal loans, most of it borrowed last year from the water department so the city could close its books. She also wants to add $3.5 million to the reserve, raising the total to $5 million.

All this is part of a five-year plan to build a solid financial foundation, Swearengin said. With such a base in place, she said, the city could begin hiring more police officers in 2017.

City officials knew they'd have to settle the internal debts, but thought it would take years of installment payments. To rid the city of that burden all at once would be a blessing to Fresno's future, she said.

And the city has been hammered for years by Wall Street credit analysts for its meager rainy-day fund. Swearengin said her five-year plan would lead to a reserve of $27 million by 2019.

City Hall's extra money comes from several sources. Swearengin expects to have a $6.8 million carryover from the 2014 fiscal year. Most of it comes from windfalls. For example, $3.3 million comes from one-time cuts in operational expenses.

The budget is helped by strong revenues from property taxes. The city hopes to get a $3.5 million payment next year from the former Redevelopment Agency as part of a settlement of loans covering the past 50 years.

Some employee expenses are expected to rise next year.

Swearengin said she will deliver a detailed 2015 budget to the council by mid-May. Budget hearings usually begin in late May or early June.

The mayor said she'll make one key point to the council today: The city isn't on the verge of bankruptcy, as it appeared to be 18 months ago, but it faces an uphill struggle to recover from the Great Recession.

A second point will linger in the council chamber even if no one mentions it.

The city last year went through a historic special election on whether to privatize its home trash service. Swearengin said the city desperately needed the $2.5 million to $3 million in annual fees it would have collected from Mid Valley Disposal. Opponents said the city wasn't on the edge of financial disaster.

Privatization opponents carried the day in the Measure G campaign.

Swearengin said she has no regrets.

"I know the city would be in a better financial position had Measure G passed," she said. "It didn't. We've gotten through another six-month period with no more than $1.5 million in the bank for an emergency. That's no way to operate a city of 505,000 people."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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