Money for Fresno parks comes under scrutiny

City Council Member Esmeralda Soria on Monday said she wants Fresno to spend more money next year on the parks system.

It’s another sign that Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s proposed budget may go down in history as the Green Space Spending Battle.

Soria said at a news conference that she will make a motion at Tuesday’s budget hearings to spend an extra $1.5 million for parks. A big chunk would pay for a master plan identifying the system’s needs and how to pay for solutions.

When it comes to parks, Soria said, “our families deserve more and they deserve better.”

Council Member Paul Caprioglio and about 50 community activists joined Soria at Quigley Park, a part of the latter’s district.

Caprioglio said the goal is improved parks for all districts.

Soria said the $1.5 million would also help pay for operations, maintenance and land. Ideally, she said, the master plan would be finished by the end of 2015.

The state of Fresno’s parks system “is unacceptable,” Soria said.

With that, everyone wiped their brows in the blistering mid-afternoon heat and geared up for what figures to be an even hotter Parks Department budget review.

Mark Standriff, the city’s communications director, said Swearengin “appreciates Council Member Soria’s leadership on this issue and echoes her call for a new parks master plan.”

In fact, Standriff said, Swearengin was pitching the need for a master plan weeks ago.

Swearengin “agrees that improving the quantity and quality of Fresno parks is important,” Standriff said. “However, we can’t do everything now. We need a balanced and measured approach to restoring all our services.”

Swearengin has proposed a $1.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Budget hearings began Monday morning. The city attorney’s office, airports and transportation generated little excitement.

Parks has been in the spending spotlight for several months.

The context is survival. City Hall has put to rest its recent fears of bankruptcy. That means a city once watching every penny now has a small stash to spend as it wishes.

Swearengin and several council members recently gathered at Vinland Park (in Caprioglio’s district) to announce nearly $6 million of parks improvements in the new budget.

Activists said that’s just a pittance compared to what the system needs. Some made quite a splash with allegations that a portion of northeast Fresno has four times as much parks space as a certain part of southeast Fresno.

Administration officials agreed with the first charge, saying they’d spend more if they had more. These officials strongly disagreed with the second charge, saying the numbers were badly represented.

Such chatter for the most part was street theater. The power to get something done resides with the council and the Dan Ronquillo Rule. Named after the former council member, it notes that the council can do as it pleases with the budget if it has five (hence, veto-proof) votes.

Soria said the extra $1.5 million could come from money generated by the death of the Redevelopment Agency. The presence of this money is no mystery at City Hall. The question: Should the RDA dough go into the slowly recovering general fund reserve or toward services in a service-starved city?

Soria’s idea could face its stiffest test not from a skeptical mayor but from others on the council dais.

Council members throughout the hearings make budget-tweaking motions. A motion blessed with a second goes into what Council President Oliver Baines calls “the hopper.” Each motion gets a council vote at the end of the hearings.

Soria on Tuesday may not be the only council member with a pitch to improve the Parks Department.

George Hostetter: (559) 441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter