Politics & Government

Budget challenges dog mayor candidates

Fresno's next mayor will inherit a challenge -- how to balance the budget and preserve police, fire and other services when city revenues are shrinking.

Already the city is bracing for the effects of a plummeting housing market and a softening economy.

Earlier this year, Mayor Alan Autry asked city staff to cut 1.5% from the general fund budget, or about $3 million. That money will help offset declines in sales tax and development inspection fees. Revenue from the state also is expected to drop next year.

Fresno Budget Manager Renena Smith said she expects the city will see a 3.5% increase next year in expenses due to fuel and personnel costs, but no increase in revenue. City departments have been told to plan for no increase in next year's budgets, she said.

Most of the 11 candidates running for mayor on the June 3 ballot say they would trim city expenses rather than seek tax increases. Some, however, said they would look at increasing city fees to help narrow the budget gap. Here's where they stand:

  • Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim said the city must face fiscal reality:
  • "Revenues are declining; sales taxes are down," he said. "The slumping real estate market could force a re-valuation of homes in Fresno, decreasing property taxes and lowering city revenues even more."

    Vagim said the city should not borrow more money or raise taxes, but should make cuts and reduce debt.

  • Fresno police detective Henry Monreal said he would solicit money-saving suggestions from city employees, who know best where expenses can be trimmed. He said he also would seek the advice of business people about making City Hall more efficient, and would listen to the public's ideas about where the city should save and where it should spend.
  • "We need to find the waste and eliminate any duplicative city services," Monreal said. Monreal did not cite specific areas where waste or duplication occur.

  • If budget cuts are necessary, businessman Jim Boswell said he would start at the top -- slicing the pay of the mayor and council by 30%, and cutting their car allowances and other expenses.
  • Council members make $65,000 a year, plus $1,083 in monthly allowances for medical, dental, car and meals. The council president makes an extra $5,169. Mayor Alan Autry makes $99,360 a year, but the new mayor will make $130,000 a year, once a pay raise approved in 2006 takes effect.

    City Attorney James Sanchez said the council sets those salaries and benefits. The mayor can reduce his own salary at any time, but could only veto a council's vote to raise salaries.

  • Council Member Mike Dages said he would freeze spending and eliminate unneeded positions in City Hall, including the deputy mayor.
  • "Any savings would be held in reserve for public safety only," Dages said.

    While he wouldn't raise taxes, Dages said he would consider adjusting city fees to help balance the budget. And he would adjust service fees annually to keep up with rising expenses, rather than deferring such increases for years, as the city has in the past. Dages said a huge increase would be more likely to hurt seniors and the poor.

  • Council Member Henry T. Perea said he would look for "targeted cuts" and ways to increase revenue to help balance the budget. One way the city can save millions of dollars, he said, is by increasing its reliance on solar power and alternative fuels.
  • Perea also thinks the city can speed up the money it makes from business permits by making that process run more smoothly.

  • Former Council Member Tom Boyajian said the city must live within its means -- and he would scrutinize how the city is spending its money to find more efficient ways of operating.
  • Ashley Swearengin, on leave from her job as director of the Regional Jobs Initiative, said the city has enough money to meet expenses but must work more effectively.
  • Despite a slowing economy, the city still takes in more money than it did a few years ago, she said. Swearengin said she would pursue a multiyear budget, put more city services online, and encourage departments to use volunteers whenever possible.

  • Council Member Jerry Duncan said he would look to trim spending rather than raise taxes, and would focus on maintaining the city's core responsibilities -- public safety, parks, and the repair and maintenance of infrastructure.
  • Businesses, families and seniors are all are having a hard time making ends meet, Duncan said. "This is not the time to take more money out of their pockets."

  • Fresno's Deputy Mayor Jeff Eben said fixing budget issues will take more than clever slogans or quick fixes.
  • "Every budget should have to provide for quality services, make strategic investment in the future, and build a reserve for a rainy day," Eben said. "Each year, the amount that goes into each of the three areas changes depending on the health of the economy."

  • Realtor Ignacio Garibay did not answer this question.
  • Businesswoman Barbara Hunt did not respond.
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