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Extra change in pockets, City preps for shopping spree

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Having found some spare change under the sofa cushions, Mayor Ashley Swearengin wants Fresno to go on a spending spree.

Swearengin on Thursday will ask the City Council to spend nearly $8 million on a variety of mid-fiscal year projects ranging from new safety-training employees for the Fire Department to design work for a splash park at the Mosqueda Community Center.

The money is “carry over” funds from the 2014-15 fiscal year that ended last June. That means cash was slated for specific ends, but never spent. So, it was carried over to the 2015-2016 fiscal year that began July 1.

City documents show that $7.93 million is being carried over.

Of that, Swearengin says $1.5 million should be used to fill a budget hole caused by an “ERAF adjustment.” ERAF stands for Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund. This is a 25-year-old state budgeting gambit that, in essence, moves property taxes once destined for cities and counties to the coffers of public education.

There’s been a change in how this complex formula is computed. Bottom line: The ERAF bite to City Hall income is now expected to be $1.5 million more than officials thought during the June budget hearings.

That still leaves $6.43 million of mad money for city officials. Here are some highlights from Swearengin’s spending proposals:

  • Hire a lobbyist to spread the city’s message among Sacramento politicians — $250,000.
  • $50,000 for design of the Mosqueda splash park in Southeast Fresno.
  • $300,000 for a sidewalk project at Melody Park in East-Central Fresno.
  • $71,400 for code enforcement positions
  • $200,000 for streetlights and tree trimming.
  • $520,000 to help with homeless outreach and shelter at the MAP Point project next to the Poverello House south of downtown.
  • $185,000 to cover various cost overruns at three parks projects, including $100,000 at the Vinland splash park.
  • $400,000 for construction of the Fairview Trail.
  • $500,000 for potential repayment of federal Community Development Block Grant funds (not clear if this is tied to the city’s long-running problems with the feds over housing policy).
  • $645,000 for personnel to provide fire safety training at the Fire Department for six months.
  • $1.2 million for the Fresno Unified District/Central Unified School District deal (unveiled Monday) that would make playgrounds at 16 school sites available to neighborhood residents on weekends.

Where did the carry over money come from? The Police Department is one key source. City Hall budgeted for more cops than it actually employed. Also, I’m told property tax revenue is coming higher than expected.

Carry-over money, by its nature, is one time money. You set aside $10 for widgets in last year’s budget. You didn’t spend the $10. You survived without the widgets. You’ve now got an extra $10 in the new budget, to spend on widgets or some other good or service.

As city officials have said repeatedly since the Great Recession hit will full force in mid-2009, it’s one thing to spend one-time money on goods (widgets, or screws, or ladders, things that don’t need to replaced very often) and an entirely different thing to spend one-time money on employees or vital services.

Employees (and their unions) generally don’t like to be laid off after six months or a year on the job. Voters don’t like to get used to a wonderful service, only to see it die after six months or a year.

In other words, employees and vital services tend to become ongoing expenses. Cities play with budgetary fire when they initially fund new employees and vital services with one-time money. That puts huge pressure on succeeding budgets to find new sources of money to pay for last year’s splurges.

As we working stiffs know only too well, new sources of money are hard to come by.

Code enforcement positions, a state lobbyist, MAP Point services for the homeless, school green-space programs and fire-training officials sure sound like long-term, ongoing expenses.

You don’t need to be a veteran City Hall observer to sense politics here.

Swearengin is termed out in 12-plus months. She needs council votes if she’s to fulfill her final-year agenda. She’s taking a lot of heat from community activists over Fresno’s lack of green space. She embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with the Fire Department’s rank-and-file. She’s getting ready to release a report on the Capt. Pete Dern fire-fighting incident of early 2015, one that almost certainly will take the city to task for the scale of its financial commitment to Fire Department operations.

Now there’s extra money in the kitty. None of this affects the projected $15 million general fund reserve. Someone might say boom times for city revenues will stretch as far as the eye can see.

Why not spend?

Council Member Lee Brand, who is running to succeed Swearengin as mayor, said he’s got no problem with the Mayor’s individual proposals.

“They all sound like good things,” Brand said.

At the same time, Brand said, “You could probably put a thousand ideas on that list. How do you choose – throw a dart?”

Brand said he will have plenty of questions at Thursday’s council meeting.

For example, Brand said, a state lobbyist obviously would be worth $250,000 a year if the person brought in, say, $1 million to the city that wouldn’t have been possible without high-powered lobbying effort.

But, he added, there’s probably no guarantee of that kind of return.

As to the fire-training officials, Brand said, it might be wise to ask if a better return would come from hiring more firefighters.

Brand counseled “prudence” when it comes to spending one-time money that generates long-term commitments on the budget.

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

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