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Fresno Utilities director's bonus fuels fire over water rate hikes

MAYBE THE GENERAL FUND GOT SHAFTED

But I’m not quite ready to move on.

On Tuesday I asked City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff about the source of Esqueda’s bonus. He said he’d get back to me.

I raised the Esqueda/bonus issue with Council Member Brand on Tuesday. Brand certainly wants to clean up the bonus mess. He is the main author of the fix-it legislation to be debated by the council on Thursday.

But Brand had no patience with my inquiry. He was kind but firm when he told me to get a life. He used simple math to show what a farce I had become. Divide Esqueda’s bonus by the number of water accounts serviced by Public Utilities, Brand said, and it turns out that each customer paid a couple of cents to fund Esqueda’s bonus.

I felt stupid.

But, doggone it. I get confused so easily at City Hall.

If somebody at City Hall (like the mayor) is using general fund money to subsidize an enterprise department, then how did Prop. 218 suddenly die?

And if ratepayers funded a recent $10,000 executive bonus, then how many other bonuses or juiced-up benefit packages are hidden in the fine print of that controversial water-rate structure – fine print that has the force of law but is deemed outside the bailiwick of a curious but ignorant ratepayer.

That ratepayer would be me.

Of course, city officials may tell me that Esqueda’s salary comes 100% from the general fund, therefore it’s nothing unusual for the general fund to pay for his bonus.

But, near as I can tell, Esqueda works 100% for an enterprise department. What possible justification would there be for making the general fund bear the burden of Esqueda’s salary while utility ratepayers (some living in county islands) reap 100% of the benefit?

All this raises four issues for me.

1.) If Esqueda’s bonus came from the general fund, should Public Utilities (i.e. the ratepayers) repay the general fund to the tune of $10,000?

2.) Esqueda’s $10,000 bonus isn’t a situation where Swearengin forgot to send an obscure report to the City Council while she remains firm in her belief that the executive bonuses were the right thing to do. This deals with the integrity of City Hall’s handling of public money behind closed doors. If you don’t believe me, just recall all the chaos caused by City Hall’s secret borrowing from internal accounts – the $30 million-plus of so called “negative fund balances.” (This fiasco was first brought to light by me and The Bee.)

3.) Why did Esqueda take the money? If his salary is paid by ratepayers, but his $10,000 bonus came from the general fund, then he was getting a financial break not accorded to his colleagues on Team Public Utilities. These fine men and women don’t have access to the general fund to boost their compensation.

4.) Where are you, Doug Vagim?

The former Fresno County supervisor during last fall’s round of water forums warned repeatedly about 1.) the opaque manner in which the huge water-rate hikes were calculated, and 2.) the irresistible temptation that $429 million in ratepayer funds (the cost of the proposed upgrade to Fresno’s water system, not including interest on debt) would pose to politicians and bureaucrats alike.

Let’s say Esqueda’s $10,000 bonus came from enterprise department funds.

That would mean one of two things. First, the rate-calculating experts knew more than a year ago that they were building executive bonuses into the rates (if so, who told them to do that?). Second, some rogue politician at City Hall took $10,000 from a ratepayer pot that essentially said “Don’t Spend On Bonuses” and spent it on a bonus.

And if Esqueda’s $10,000 bonus came from enterprise department funds designated by law for anything other than executive bonuses, then Vagim was right. There’s so much ratepayer money sloshing around Public Utilities that City Hall can’t keep track of it all – and hammers anyone who questions the final fate of a “piddling” $10,000.

Maybe Vagim should think about running for mayor.

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. Too bad nobody figured out that the water scam was an enterprise fund financed project that grew city government by $25 million a year. A fee that will never go away.

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