Fresno Mayor Swearengin optimistic about city's $1 billion budget

The Fresno BeeMay 20, 2014 

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin speaks to the City Council on Feb. 27, 2014, at a meeting about reopening Fulton Mall to vehicular traffic.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE

There's something new in Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin latest budget -- optimism.

Swearengin on Tuesday unveiled a nearly $1 billion spending plan for next fiscal year that's strong on the old warhorses of local politics. She loves public safety. She wants more jobs. She hates debt.

But for the first time since she took office in 2009, Swearengin found a way to smile while talking about finances. She expects enough money to boost key services, accelerate the paring of internal debt and goose entrepreneurial ambitions.

In other words, the insolvency chatter of the past five years, like the Great Recession, is gone.

"We did it," Swearengin said at a City Hall news conference. "We survived."

Administration officials will present the proposed $995.4 million 2014-2015 budget to the City Council on Thursday. The general fund budget is $286.4 million, nearly 6% more than two years ago. Much of the increase is expected to come from sales and property tax revenues.

The general fund is money spent at elected officials' discretion and goes mainly to police, fire and parks. The offices of the mayor, city manager and council members also are part of the general fund.

Budget hearings begin June 5. The council will adopt a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Among the budget highlights:

  • The addition of 34 cadets to a police force maintained at 717 sworn officers.
  • A boost in the fire department's minimum daily staffing from 67 to 71 firefighters.
  • The purchase of four fire engines, one ladder truck and one water tender.
  • An extra $2 million for street improvements and road repairs.
  • $50,000 to each council member for district infrastructure projects.
  • The repayment of internal debts four years ahead of schedule.
  • An increase in the general fund reserve from $1.5 million to $5 million, with the goal of $27 million in five years.

Fresno several years ago owed $36 million to itself -- the notorious negative fund balances. The bill has been steadily reduced, and Swearengin wants to retire it and other internal loans. She said this is vital to repairing Fresno's reputation in the credit markets.

A modest-sized economic development team and better service in planning (a long-standing plea among developers) will aid job-producing businesses, Swearengin said.

The police department has about 130 fewer sworn officers than five years ago. The fire department is struggling to rise above 1950s-era staffing levels. Swearengin's solution: solidify Fresno's finances in FY 2015, then rebuild public safety from a position of strength.

"I firmly believe we are reaching our tipping point in Fresno where the steady, aggressive changes we have implemented over the past several years are starting to achieve big results," Swearengin said.

When Swearengin took office, Fresno's government had about 4,000 employees. It now has fewer than 3,300. Such downsizing took a ferocious toll on services, breadwinners and political equanimity.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said the mayor's new budget builds a stable future on painful lessons from the past.

"In light of what has occurred over the past four years," Rudd said, "it would seem that we owe this much to our employees as well as the community."

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

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