Fresno City Council takes a liking to bigger, healthier budget

The Fresno BeeJune 9, 2014 

It didn't take long for Fresno City Hall's eyes to get bigger than its wallet.

The City Council and top bureaucrats on Monday spent the first full day of budget hearings doing little more than yielding to pent-up spending dreams.

The police department -- more officers, more dispatchers, more clerks, more equipment, more patrols.

The parks department -- more green space, more programs, more maintenance, more workers.

The convention center -- more capital improvements, more maintenance, more industry outreach.

Airports was the only department in Monday's spotlight to avoid the mania. City officials want more direct flights to more cities, but grudgingly admitted that the airlines have the final say in such matters.

City Manager Bruce Rudd noted that fire is among the departments in today's center stage.

"I wonder what they'll ask for," he said with a smile.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin has submitted a nearly $1 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. This includes a general fund spending plan of about $286 million, catnip for the council since the money is spent at city discretion.

Among council members since 2007, only Blong Xiong (finishing his eighth year in office) has seen a city budget that didn't have bankruptcy looming over it. This year is different. Upticks in projected revenue have Swearengin inching toward restoration of services. She wants to put more cash in the reserve. Still, she urges caution on the spending front.

Council members on Monday couldn't help themselves.

The morning session started in reality.

Officials said airports is on solid ground. Airways Golf Course, owned by the department, will see a cost-of-living bump to green fees, but only 25 cents in some cases.

Convention Center general manager Bill Overfelt said the downtown complex needs someone whose sole job is bringing conventions to downtown Fresno. He solution: Set aside $100,000 (salary, travel) from two accounts to hire an expert who would be directed by the local convention and visitors bureau.

City Hall, the Convention Center and the visitors bureau were once a team of considerable influence and much success. Their historic divorce was driven by the budget crisis. The rapprochement may be starting.

Rudd introduced new parks director Manuel Mollinedo. Rudd said there's more than enough money from developer fees to cover the annual bill for the huge parks bond that has worried City Hall for years. The council wondered what could be done with the extra money in a city ranked last in a recent survey of municipal green space.

The afternoon session took flight. That's common at budget hearings for police, biggest consumer of general fund dollars and deal-breaker for local political careers.

Xiong asked for a bicycle patrol for the Tower District, part of which he represents. Council Member Oliver Baines, who also has turf in the district, seconded the idea.

Details such as funding will be worked out later, Xiong said.

Council Member Paul Caprioglio asked Chief Jerry Dyer to open a report-writing office near El Dorado Park, long a District 4 concern. Dyer was told to handle funding details.

The city leases five beds at the Fresno County jail to handle car thieves. Xiong and Baines questioned the wisdom of what they called double taxation. Caprioglio speculated on the need for more leased beds.

Swearengin's budget calls for 717 sworn officers. Dyer said he needs 800. The chief said he could used another 50 to 60 civilian employees.

Fresnans are demanding more services, Baines said.

"We don't have a spending problem, he said. "We have a revenue problem."

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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