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Money moves, Esme’s questions launch Council’s budget battles

Fresno City Hall

Money moves, Esme’s questions launch Council’s budget battles

The City Council begins reallocating funds from Mayor Swearengin’s budget, while Soria leads the Council in information queries.

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The Fresno City Council will flex its muscle at a special meeting on Tuesday.

But for every action there’s a reaction. And I’ve got to wonder if we’ll also see the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin push back – real hard.

The council’s agenda is simple – vote on individual motions made during budget hearings over the past two weeks.

Swearengin is proposing a $1.1 billion spending plan for the 2016-17 fiscal year beginning July 1. More of just about everything and no bankruptcy threat on the horizon – what’s not to like?

That’s the challenge. When the money flows, everyone wants to spend.

Budget hearings work like this: A council member sees a problem in the budget. He makes a motion with a specific fix. If the motion gets a second, it goes on a list. Each motion on the list is voted on at a single meeting. The motions with a majority vote get added to the proposed budget.

That’s what happens on Tuesday.

The proposed budget with council tweaks then goes to the council for an up-or-down vote at another meeting. The council will tackle that chore on Thursday.

Last-minute budget motions happen all the time.

The proposed budget with council revisions then goes to the Mayor for her signature. She wields a line-item veto pen. If she vetoes a council addition, then the budget isn’t done. Her vetoes go back to the council for possible override. Five council votes – a supermajority – beats a veto.

Ideally, the new budget will be signed, sealed and delivered by June 30.

According to the City Clerk’s Office, council members this month made 15 budget motions with seconds.

The big question with motions, even bigger than whether they make a lick of policy sense, is who suffers. Mayors don’t propose budgets with extra money hidden under the couch cushions. To spend more money on widgets means some other priority loses.

The general fund reserve is a popular money tree for rebellious council members.

Near as I can tell, the council on Tuesday will consider reallocating more than $400,000 of general fund money. Among Tuesday’s motions:

  • $70,000 to staff the Pinedale Community Center and add programming by the Parks Department (Steve Brandau motion, Esmeralda Soria second).
  • $14,000 to expand the youth lifeguard program to areas west of Highway 99 (Soria motion, Oliver Baines second).
  • $55,000 to support programs and ongoing maintenance at Melody Park (Paul Caprioglio motion, Baines second).
  • $25,000 to fund a satellite report-writing substation in the Tower District (Baines motion, Soria second).
  • $25,000 to fund a report-writing substation at Stone Soup near El Dorado Park (Caprioglio motion, Sal Quintero second).
  • $50,000 to the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation to help with retention/addition of business (Brandau motion, Lee Brand second). This is in addition to the $50,000 already in the Mayor’s budget.
  • An unspecified amount of money to design and engineer an updated irrigation system at Woodward Park (Brandau motion, Brand second).

These and other motions should make for a lively debate on Tuesday.

But there’s another part of this budget process that caught my attention. That is council directions.

It’s the nature of budget hearings that all the chatter on a specific department’s spending plan revs up the council’s curiosity. A council member will think: “Wow, I didn’t know about the Public Works Department’s widget division. I’d love to know about every widget deal for the past decade.”

That’s all it takes. The council member looks at City Manager Bruce Rudd. “Mr. City Manager,” the council members says, “I’d like a report on each widget deal since 2006.”

That’s a council direction.

Funny thing about council directions – they always mean more work for the executive branch.

According to the City Clerk’s Office, the council during budget hearings pitched 29 “directives” to Rudd. That strikes me as a lot.

Even more interesting – 20 of them come from District 1’s Soria.

Among the council directives:

  •  Distribute the report that shows park acreage in each council district (Brand).
  • Explain how much deferred maintenance is being addressed in the new budget (Soria).
  • Provide a written update on the status of City Hall’s long-running battle with the feds over Housing Division problems (Baines).
  • Provide a list of claims paid by the risk management division over the past year (Soria).
  • Identify the cost of updating the Tower District Specific Plan vs. the cost of doing a brand new Tower District Specific Plan (Soria).

Twenty-nine such directives – good luck, Mr. City Manager.

On top of that, a city official on Monday told me that Tuesday’s council meeting is all but guaranteed to generate more budget motions and council directions.

Any City Hall reporter learns quickly that the council doesn’t need a budget hearing to direct the Administration to jump through some sort of report-writing, information-gathering, data-collecting hoop.The directives come throughout the year.

I used to think to myself: Do council members remember the next day what they asked for? If they do remember, and they get their report, do they read it? And if they do read it, does the info sink in?

I have only to look in the mirror to think this way. A City Hall reporter each week accumulates a small mountain of paperwork. I can handle only a small portion of it. An even smaller portion ever makes its way into a story.

Yet, I keep pursuing the stuff.

I understand the council’s thinking. The council, as legislative branch, is equal to the executive branch. But it’s the executive branch that controls almost all of the municipal corporation’s day-to-day activities. If the executive branch is stingy with information about what’s really going on, well, the council can’t fulfill its charter-mandated duties.

It’s a fine and shifting line as to what’s a legitimate council directive and what’s grandstanding.

Andy Souza when he was city manager hit the breaking point one day. It was during a council meeting. Souza gave each council member a list of all the reports, plans, updates and summaries the council had recently requested. The list ran to several pages.

Then Souza spoke to the council. I can’t remember his exact words. But he said something to the effect of: The city doesn’t have unlimited staff. We’re doing the people’s business. This may come as a surprise to the council, but you’re not boosting good government by demanding a report on every issue that pops into your head. Please – think before directing.

Poor Andy – his words of wisdom went in one council ear and out the other.

My prediction: At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the list of council directives will top 50.

Unless Bruce Rudd pulls an Andy Souza.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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