Fresno Mayor Swearengin presents budget; now the debate begins

The Fresno BeeMay 22, 2014 

Ashley Swearengin

FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO

The niceties are out of the way. Things with the next city of Fresno budget are about to get interesting.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Thursday formally delivered to the City Council her proposed 2014-15 budget, a nearly $1 billion spending plan focused on public safety, debt reduction and rainy-day accounts.

The budget "will make sure we achieve true financial stability," Swearengin said.

Revenues show an uptick. Five years of shrinking payrolls are in the past. Opportunity abounds to rebuild services.

"We're not talking the B-word (bankruptcy) anymore," Rudd said.

The half-hour presentation ended with council members thanking Swearengin and City Manager Bruce Rudd for the encouraging news.

Nothing said by the mayor or Rudd came as a surprise. The budget's essential numbers and general theme have percolated through the public domain for several weeks. It's all part of the usual routine leading up to events of early June.

That's when smiles are filed away and budget hearings begin. Fresno's finances over the past five years were so woeful that the council, despite its authority to retool the budget as necessary, largely bowed to mayoral recommendation. Now that there's some spare change in the till, legislative subservience appears out of fashion.

Council Member Oliver Baines personified this streak of independence.

"I appreciate the emphasis on parks and community centers. That's where my heart is," Baines said. But, he added, "I'd like to see more staff for our public safety."

Everyone knows adding here means subtracting there. But no one pursued the conflict. That comes on June 5 with the first budget hearing. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

The general fund reserve most likely will be the center of attention. It's $1.5 million now, not even 1% of a proposed $286.4 general fund budget. Swearengin wants a $27 million reserve by 2019.

More than any other issue, this reserve highlights differing governing philosophies at City Hall.

Some politicians see little need to set aside money for emergencies. They consider it wrong to keep money on the sidelines in a city with immense needs. They say Fresno always muddles through.

Some see a healthy reserve as insurance for inevitable reversals of fortune. They say building and keeping a reserve instills self-discipline in a City Hall fond of spending other people's money.

Said Council Member Blong Xiong: "We'll definitely be having a discussion about the reserve."

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

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