As mayor of the fifth-largest city in California and 34th largest in the nation, I’ve had my share of criticism, fair or otherwise. It’s part of the job. Fresno itself has had to endure endless jokes, jabs and brickbats from both outsiders who are unaware of the exceptional progress our city has made since the Great Recession and insiders who purposely ignore it because the facts don’t fit their agendas.
One of those insiders is Darius Assemi, a local developer. Assemi’s 1,300-word opinion piece in last Sunday’s Bee works very hard to cast aspersions over our city and persuade the reader that Fresno is falling apart. While I disagree with almost every word of his commentary, I appreciate the opportunity it presents for us to talk about where we stand as a community, both the successes and setbacks.
First, let’s start with some statistics. The first of Assemi’s data points was a report from the Brookings Institution that ranked Fresno 93rd out of 100 major cities nationwide in prosperity growth from 2009 through 2014. He failed to mention the same Brookings Institution reported a 4.5 percent job growth rate in Fresno in 2014 and identified our city as one of the top job-creating cities in the world.
He also left out that Fresno’s unemployment has dropped by almost 40 percent over the last five years; our exports are up two and a half times the national average; and perhaps most exciting, Fresno has experienced a 20 percent increase in tech jobs since 2011, making us the fourth-fastest tech job-creating city in California.
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None of these positive indicators means the work to improve our economy, lower unemployment and improve incomes is over. But if we are serious about overcoming our challenges, we have to consider where our strengths and opportunities are.
The authors of a report from the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, put it best when they note that focusing on positive aspects of our region is not to “gloss over the region’s problems … but rather to focus on and reveal its strengths in order to build a stronger and more informed dialogue about how to best overcome its challenges.”
I encourage my fellow Fresnans to take this advice and look at the whole picture – weaknesses and strengths, challenges and opportunities – not just selective data points as Assemi has done.
Second, let’s talk about public safety. Police staffing levels were reduced during the recession – yet until last year, we were experiencing historically low levels of crime. Fresno, like every other major city in California, is seeing increases in property and violent crime.
Most law enforcement experts point to the passage of Proposition 47 as being responsible, as it changed criminal sentences to lower prison populations and reduce costs.
Despite this major policy blow, Proposition 47 has had less of an impact in Fresno than in other major California cities, thanks to the incredible work of the Fresno Police Department and the entire law enforcement community.
According to the FBI, Sacramento has seen a 77 percent increase in violent crime, Los Angeles a 54 percent increase, and Long Beach a 45 percent increase. Property crimes have gone up by 667 percent in San Francisco, 147 percent in Long Beach and 145 percent in Los Angeles.
Public safety must always be the top priority of every mayor, yet Assemi completely ignores my administration’s efforts to prioritize public safety despite drastically reduced revenues. He conveniently forgets to mention that the first major grant I pursued and secured as mayor was a $12 million Community Oriented Policing Services grant in January 2009 to fund 41 police officers, the largest COPS grant in the nation.
During my tenure, the percentage of the general fund dedicated to public safety has ranged from 70 percent to 84 percent. The peak public-safety spending in the general fund for the Jim Patterson and Alan Autry administrations was 65 percent and 73 percent, respectively.
I’m not sure what police union president Jacky Parks means when he says my “rhetoric doesn’t match results.” If dedicating 84 percent of our general fund isn’t “walking the talk” then I don’t know what is.
Last, Assemi says I reduced the number of police officers by 15 percent, but he doesn’t acknowledge that we will have added funding for 84 positions during my last two fiscal-year budgets. By January 2017, we will have 801 police-officer positions, bringing our staffing levels to within 4 percent of our all-time high in 2009.
It has been difficult to manage public-safety needs through the Great Recession. Thanks to the men and women of the Fresno police and fire departments, we have made it through and are rebuilding both departments aggressively and sustainably with the financial resources we have.
The recession taught us that before you lock in expensive and lengthy union contracts, you must have a five-year financial plan to ensure those commitments are sustainable over time.
Assemi also says our next mayor should make water supply a top priority. I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I’m puzzled at his attack. He must have forgotten the herculean effort my administration put into passing the water-infrastructure plan needed to drought-proof our city for the next 50 years.
And while my council colleagues and I didn’t enjoy increasing water rates to pay for the infrastructure, we made the decision to benefit future generations, because that’s what leaders do.
Last, business friendliness. Let Leland Parnagian, owner of North Pointe Business Park, describe his experience: “I have found Mayor Swearengin and her administration to be keenly focused on job creation and economic development. Without hesitation she and her staff have done virtually everything possible to help attract job-creating employers. In my experience, site selectors and business owners seeking to locate in Fresno have unanimously praised her leadership and commitment, her command of internal processes and her superior ability to sell the benefits of locating in Fresno.”
Despite our progress, we are a long way from where we want to be when it comes to employer-friendly business processes at City Hall. In fact, we’re just getting started. Our focus this year is staff training and procuring a badly needed technology upgrade. The new system will allow online tracking of applications and a host of other user-friendly experiences.
I was surprised to read Assemi’s comments about city-planning decisions made without developers in the room. No developer in Fresno has spent more time at City Hall than his Granville Homes. He and his lobbying team do an excellent job of making their desires known.
And while it is the job of city officials to consider their input, we must make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire city, not just one developer. That is what we’ve done.
As I wind down my eight years in office, I am proud of progress we’ve made to successfully navigate the recession; pay off debt; build a reserve; rebuild police and fire; adopt a long-range plan that doesn’t sprawl; improve water infrastructure; and begin to address the challenges of inner-city neighborhoods.
Despite the tremendous sense of accomplishment I feel about the last seven years, I’m equally aware of how much work there is left to do. Parks and trails, public safety, financial stability, neighborhood revitalization and housing, economic and workforce development – these are among the top community priorities which will require nonstop focus, not just by the next administration, but for the next 20 years.
As James Fallows recently said in his series about Fresno in The Atlantic, “People in San Francisco or New York can be smugly confident in their coolness. We like, better, the Fresno kick-ass spirit.”
Wouldn’t it be great if insiders like Darius Assemi could take a lesson from outsiders like Fallows and acknowledge the great new spirit rising in Fresno?
Ashley Swearengin is the mayor of Fresno.