Historic legacies, human trafficking and job-boosting incentive programs were all part of Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting.
But it was Council Member Steve Brandau’s announcement a block from the dais that dominated City Hall’s focus throughout the day.
The District 2 representative held a late-morning news conference to say he’ll abstain from voting if any water-rate hikes come to the council in the near future.
Brandau stood next to the historic water tower to vow a neutral stance on all things water until City Hall has exhausted every way to find outside money to fund a system upgrade.
Brandau promised he would “make sure we have done everything we can to bring help to our residents.”
With that, an issue already of mind-numbing complexity suddenly threatens to explode the heads of anyone giving it too much thought.
The context is this.
Fresno now finds itself about two-thirds of the way through a legally mandated protest election.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin for close to two years has wanted to deliver what she says is a long-overdue rebuilding of an antiquated water system. The cost is somewhere north of $400 million. The latest estimate is $429 million, the biggest chunk going for a surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.
Paying for everything is said to require a big boost in residential and commercial water rates. The City Council has been wrestling with the mechanics and politics of this since summer 2013. Brandau has been one of Swearengin’s allies, although his support has seemed grudging at times. He has seldom been a fan of bigger government bills.
After many twists and turns, the council late last year voted to begin a protest vote on higher rates. The vote ends Feb. 5. If rate opponents fall short of a majority, Swearengin’s $429 million plan falls in the council’s lap.
It’s here that the import of Brandau’s announcement is found.
Swearengin says she’s doing all she can to find ways to lighten the project’s burden on local ratepayers. This is key to finding four council members to embrace her plan.
For example, the plan anticipates a $50 million low-interest state loan. Swearengin would love to get a loan of $100 million or more, thus reducing borrowing costs.
Brandau on Thursday said he thinks there may be other ways to help Fresno ratepayers, paths that the mayor hasn’t traveled. Toward that end, he called for a water summit that would include locally based state legislators to chew on funding ideas.
Brandau made a point to identify Assembly Member (and former Fresno City Council member) Henry T. Perea as someone to help City Hall negotiate the intricacies of the state’s new $7.5 billion water bond, a possible source of help.
Brandau said he would do his duty by casting a water-rate vote only when these efforts are made.
His vow to sit on the voting sideline would be irrelevant if Swearengin was convinced she had four of the remaining six council members on her side. At this point, she’s not. The mayor sees no reason to risk a 3-3 project-killing tie vote when, by jumping through some hoops in the next few weeks, she might regain Brandau’s support while perhaps lowering the funding load on ratepayers.
Brandau at Thursday’s afternoon council meeting reviewed his morning comments for the benefit of his colleagues. Council members then took up other aspects of the people’s business.
They heartily agreed with Council Member Sal Quintero and Council President Oliver Baines that the late Alfonso Hernandez Jr. should have his name added to the downtown youth center he worked so hard to fund. The site on Divisadero Street will be called the Alfonso Hernandez Jr. Youth and Community Center at Dickey Park.
With Council Member Clint Olivier taking the lead, the council threw its support behind “Human Trafficking Awareness Month” and the local leaders working to help the victims of human trafficking.
The council at meeting’s end decided to continue a fee-deferral program designed to boost Fresno industry and put people to work.
Water, though, was the issue of the day. Few, if any, at City Hall think Thursday’s surprise was the final one.
Swearengin said Brandau raised valid points.
As to following Brandau’s plea to turn over every government rock in search of money, the mayor said, “That’s exactly what we plan to do.”