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Council pushes for $2.1mil in added spending

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The Fresno City Council revealed an old truth on Tuesday.

Budgets are a 365-day affair.

The council in the late morning waded through a bunch of motions accumulated through two weeks of hearings on Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s proposed 2016-2017 budget.

When the dust cleared shortly after lunch, the council had sent two clear messages to City Manager Bruce Rudd.

First, the council wants to spend another $2.1 million of general fund money above and beyond what the Mayor has in mind.

Second, the council, knowing full well there’s no extra money just lying around and showing no fondness for nasty tradeoffs, is happy to let the Administration figure out how to make the bottom line hunky-dory.

At least the council recognizes a miracle-maker when it sees one. Team Swearengin has spent the last six years plugging leaky spending plans.

“Give us a couple of days,” Rudd told the council. “We’ll give it a shot at knocking that (the $2.1 million deficit) down a bit.”

Odd that Rudd forgot to smile.

Right out the chute everyone knew the meeting would end with a temporary misalignment of spending priorities. That’s the name of the game at this point in the budget process – council members get enough votes to fund favored interests ignored by the mayor; the administration in one way or another pursues reconciliation.

Usually you’re talking a discrepancy in the low six figures, a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Not a couple of million.

Now, $2.1 million doesn’t seem like all that much in a general fund budget of about $300 million. That’s less than 1%.

But you’d be surprised how much of that $300 million is, if not exactly untouchable, then certainly very hot to handle.

For example, according to the proposed budget, $227 million of the $300 million goes to personnel costs. Council members like having council assistants just as much as Police Chief Jerry Dyer likes having all 801 of the promised cops.

Holders of Pension Obligation Bonds like getting the $12.7 million they’re legally entitled to.

Fire Chief Kerri Donis fully expects to get the 57 new helmets, 40 new sets of turnouts and 290 new hoods to replace outdated equipment worn by her firefighters.

You get the picture. From the get-go, vast swaths of the general fund budget are off-limits to Rudd.

For the record, most of the $2.1 million of new spending comes from two council motions.

The first was a catch-all motion from Oliver Baines. It includes $70,000 for the Pinedale community center, $55,000 for Melody Park, $50,000 for two new police substations and $450,000 for a variety of deferred maintenance projects.

According to one variation of this motion, the total is $948,000. According to another variation (which includes money for Lafayette Park), the total is $999,000. Either way, one million pretty much covers it.

The second big motion came from Steve Brandau. He wants another $150,000 for each council district’s infrastructure fund. Seven districts times $150,000 — $1.05 million for street repairs.

A handful of other motions – chump change from the taxpayers – and you’re in the $2.1 million range. Nobody as the council chamber emptied on Thursday knew the exact amount.

Rudd, Assistant City Manager Renena Smith and Budget Manager Jane Sumpter met throughout the afternoon. According to one council member, the trio by mid-afternoon had identified about $1 million of relatively painless savings – halfway there.

The other $1 million? Everyone is invited to return to the Council Chamber on Thursday for answers and, perhaps, a final vote on Swearengin’s budget.

I must admit I left the Council Chamber thoroughly confused. The votes on the two big motions (taken right before lunch) were slam-dunks – 7-0 on Baines’ omnibus bill, 6-0 (with Clint Olivier abstaining) on Brandau’s streets bill. Swearengin, should she be so inclined, has no chance with a veto. Rudd led the audience to believe that the afternoon session would be full of Administration preaching about the righteousness of prudent finances.

Instead (to use a football metaphor), Rudd took a knee and Council President Paul Caprioglio blew the final whistle.

I took an afternoon walk through Downtown and came up with six thoughts:

1.) With Brandau’s motion, Brand told me in a phone interview, each of the seven council districts now has about $500,000 in its infrastructure fund. This money, spent at each council member’s discretion, is to go toward things like streets, curbs, gutters, sidewalks and tree-trimming. Altogether, that’s $3.5 million of Public Works money at the council’s disposal.

I said to Brand: “At this rate, Public Works will become a council-controlled department just like the City Attorney’s Office and the City Clerk’s Office.”

Brand disagreed. But the Dan Ronquillo Rule prevails: Five votes and the council can do as it pleases.

2.) No one disputes the high professionalism of city officials in both the executive and legislative branches. Yet, budget hearings can’t help but to bring out the periodic screwball nature of self-government.

The council at mid-morning got to talking about specific plans. A specific plan is a step or two below a general plan. It deals with a certain geographical area. That’s about all I know about specific plans.

But I do know City Hall loves specific plans. City officials believe they automatically work miracles. Esmeralda Soria at one point made a motion (Baines did the second) to spend $100,000 on updating the Tower District Specific Plan. The plan hasn’t been updated since 1991.

I was living in the Tower District in 1991. Is the place still full of group homes?

Anyway, Brandau was cool to the $100,000 expenditure. He represents part of the West-of-Highway 99 area. Soria and Baines also represent parts of that area. Brandau is especially keen on a specific plan for much of the West-of-99 area. In fact, the Administration last year promised to begin work on such a plan.

Brandau got to thinking out loud on Tuesday: My West-of-99 plan is nowhere to be seen. Now the Tower District plan is jumping to the front of the line. Come to think of it, how many specific plans are in the pipeline?

“It seems like we’re getting dozens of them,” Brandau said.

Maybe not dozens, but an observer might need eight fingers and two thumbs to count all the specific plans either on the drawing board or on the wish list of some council member.

In the end, Soria withdrew her motion for $100,000. But that came after council members and staff discussed specific plan timelines extending many years into the future. Most of the people in Tuesday’s debate probably won’t even be at City Hall when these specific plans get done.

What to do with all these specific plans tripping over each other?

“We need another study,” Brandau said, smiling.

3.) It’ll be interesting to see how Brand handles the debate on Thursday when the Administration returns with $2.1 million of savings/cuts.

Brand in past budget hearings recommended places to cut whenever he made motions to spend more. In other words, he didn’t toss the hard work onto the shoulders of someone else. He dove into the budget himself.

Brand is running for mayor against Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea. Thursday could be a wonderful opportunity for Brand to show his ability to resolve knotty political/financial challenges.

4.) It’s funny how budget hearings can change roles. Per the City Charter, it’s the Mayor who prepares and delivers the next fiscal year’s budget. The council, as we’ve seen, can tweak the budget with specific motions. But now that the ball is back in the Executive Branch’s court, City Manager Rudd in his effort to fix the $2.1 million gap finds himself in a council-like spot. He must come up with specific changes to the budget presented weeks ago by Swearengin. Rudd doesn’t have to introduce these changes to the council through a formal motion. But the effect is the same. The council on Thursday will look at each of Rudd’s ideas and give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

5.) I spent a half-hour in the City Clerk’s Office browsing through the Mayor’s proposed budget. I wanted to see if I could find $2.1 million of “unnecessary” general fund expenditures.

The Parks Department will spend $231,600 for new vehicles, including $41,000 for a 12-passenger van to transport at-risk teens to productive activities.

The city’s deal with the SPCA for animal control is getting a $421,000 bump – to $3.65 million. Wasn’t the city’s SPCA tab only about $1 million as recently as 2009?

Council Members themselves are carrying over a total of $262,300 from their infrastructure accounts – money for street repairs in the 2015-16 fiscal year that went unspent.

The planning department (which includes code enforcement) collected $2,291,769 in fines during Fiscal Year 2013-14. The planning department in FY 2016-17 expects to collect slightly less in fines — $2,279,200. Yet, city officials in the past year have dramatically increased the penalties for slumlords.

The Mayor’s budget is full of such nuggets.

6.) It was as I left the City Clerk’s Office that I realized the $2.1 million general fund gap is a tempest in a teapot.

There’s no reason why code enforcement fines in the coming 12 months shouldn’t be a full $1 million more than the amount collected in 2014. But it’s not prudent to count on such money until it gets here.

There’s no reason why business license fees can’t be more than expected. Or receipts at the regional parks. Or money from the sale of surplus city-owned land. Or fees from city-owned parking.

With that in mind, the Administration could tell the council on Thursday: OK, we’re going to postpone buying the new vehicles for Parks. And we’re going to delay hiring some police cadets. And we’re not going to get those new Fire Department turnouts.

These are just my hypothetical examples. What Rudd actually says on Thursday will be much different. But my point remains unchanged: During the course of a 365-day year, City Hall’s cash flow very easily could allow city officials to return at some point and say, “We found the money – Parks gets those vehicles, after all.”

On top of that, Swearengin is termed out in January. It’ll be up to Brand or Perea to mend the budgetary promises broken by Tuesday’s spending binge.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

1 Comment

  1. You cant balance a budget based on the cost/count of pencils. Let alone expect a healthy vibrant responsive government. You must go after the revenue.

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