Fresno’s new $1.1 billion budget boosts police, fire

New Fresno police officers are sworn in during a February 2016 ceremony at Fresno City Hall. The police department’s 2016-17 budget includes money to bolster the number of sworn officers on the force to 801 by early 2017.
New Fresno police officers are sworn in during a February 2016 ceremony at Fresno City Hall. The police department’s 2016-17 budget includes money to bolster the number of sworn officers on the force to 801 by early 2017. jwalker@fresnobee.com

On a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Fresno City Council on Thursday adopted a $1.1 billion budget that boosts the police and fire departments and increases the money available for roadway repairs across the city.

The budget is for the 2016-17 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria made a successful 11th-hour bid to create a fund to support affordable housing efforts, winning a 5-2 vote to use any leftover funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant program and money that isn’t needed to match another federal grant for those needs. Councilmen Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau voted against the proposal.

How much money that would represent is uncertain. Soria said there may be as much as $600,000 in uncommitted block grant money.

The overall budget boosts funding for the Fresno Police Department by about $7.7 million over 2015-16 and will enable the hiring of about 26 police officers. That will increase the department’s number of sworn personnel to 801, not far below its peak staffing in the mid-to-late 2000s, when the recession forced widespread staff cuts across most city departments.

The Fresno Fire Department also is in for an increased allocation of about $5.5 million over last year to boost its firefighter ranks and continue an eight-year program to replace aging vehicles and equipment.

Other budget highlights include an allocation of $5.3 million to catch up on maintenance at parks across Fresno and more than $9 million to cover paving, concrete and street maintenance and pothole repairs, a 36 percent increase over 2015-16.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin was exuberant when she spoke moments after the council’s vote adopting the budget. “I think this was the only 7-0 vote” for one of her proposed budgets since she took office in 2009, Swearengin said. She was also pleased with the council’s 5-2 vote to route loan repayments to the city from the former Fresno Redevelopment Agency into a reserve fund for the next five years to build up savings against future economic downturns.

“This is the second year in a row that we’ve been able to add services back, so we’re adding more police officers and more firefighters,” Swearengin said. “We’re now just 5 percent lower in police staffing than we were at our all-time high. And we’re continuing to put money in savings.  We have fought to protect public safety and we have fought to protect savings, knowing those were the most important things in the budget.”

Swearengin was also cheered by an announcement Thursday by San Francisco-based Fitch Ratings, a major credit rating firm, that it had upgraded the city’s municipal credit rating from BBB+ to A. Fitch issues ratings on public finance obligations on a scale from AAA, the highest credit quality, to D, or default.

In its statement, Fitch analysts said the higher rating “reflects improvements in the city’s financial resilience, inherent budget flexibility and the reserve safety margin.” The company cited “significant changes in financial policies and procedures (as a result of) lessons learned during the Great Recession.”

The city’s improved credit rating “means that in the future, if and when the city needs to borrow money to build police stations or fire stations or whatever, we can borrow money at a cheaper rate,” Swearengin said. “That saves taxpayers money and stretches dollars further.”

More than 30 residents spoke Thursday in support of Soria’s effort to find money for affordable housing, led by representatives of Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability and Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

“We think it’s a great first step forward,” said Ashley Werner, an attorney with Leadership Counsel. “We lack a local source of funding for affordable housing, but we know it is a crisis in Fresno. Twenty-five percent of Fresno residents pay more than half of their income for housing and are struggling to make ends meet.

“We hope that we will build on this in future years in the city to create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing,” Werner added.