Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin joined us on Valley Edition to talk about her priorities for the city and some of the biggest issues facing local residents, from homelessness to city finances to public safety. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
On plans to raise water rates to pay for a new surface water treatment plant and replace aging infrastructure:
"We have a chance in Fresno to be the most water secure big city in California. We have access to surface water today that we don’t use. We literally send it down the river because we don’t have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of that surface water. Even though it is extremely difficult to tell the people of Fresno that they’re going to see about a 30 percent increase in their overall city utility bill over the next four years, we can do so with the confidence in knowing we’re doing the right thing for the long term interests for our residents and the future of our city."
On her administration’s controversial removal of several downtown area homeless encampments this year:
"The city’s role has been to prioritize housing first, my role as mayor has been to find resources, in this case including raising private sector dollars, but number three, our role has been to demand a higher standard for the chronically homeless than just allowing encampments. Many have argued that we should make permanent encampments. But what we have heard loudly and clearly from experts across the country, is that once you do that, you’ve immediately set the bar so low for your community that basically you’re saying, we have given up on these folks ever being able to get out of the life that they’re in and have an independent life again. We’re just going to concretize their lives in these encampments. So we’ve had to be the backbone and the agency that said, we’re not going to allow this in our community. We want to see people in housing."
On the city’s new General Plan, which seeks to check suburban sprawl and focus more growth into existing neighborhoods:
"Mayor [Alan] Autry spent a lot of time in his eight years in office talking about the “tale of two cities” and the dividing line being Shaw Avenue, and everything south of Shaw was starting to deteriorate, and everything north of Shaw was like a different world. Well, fast-forward just five years, and I would argue that dividing line is now Herndon Avenue. And I live south of Herndon, I live in a wonderful neighborhood, I’m so happy in our neighborhood, but I drive around in some of the areas not far from my home and I see the signs of not focusing on our existing neighborhoods …. The vast majority of Fresnans live in existing neighborhoods, and will continue to do so moving forward. So the General Plan really just recognizes that and says, let’s put the right policies and incentives in place to attract investment in the private sector back into these neighborhoods, because I guarantee you, we’ve got some beautiful neighborhoods that are just on the brink of slipping into a total state of disrepair or making a comeback, and we don’t want to lose any more neighborhoods and that’s why our General Plan has the focus it does."
On the tension between the City of Fresno’s ambitious plans to grow inward with “smart growth” development and competing plans from Madera County and Fresno County:
"We need to address our own issues first and demonstrate that we’re willing to make changes and reevaluate the way we accommodate investment and growth. And if we don’t lead by example, it’s going to be real difficult for us to go across the river and have a conversation with leaders in Madera County, or step across the street in downtown Fresno and talk with leaders in Fresno County. So we really wanted to make sure that we were walking the talk first and foremost. Now it is definitely time to have meaningful conversations with leaders from Madera County and Fresno County. We actually are required according to a lawsuit settlement that the City of Fresno and the Madera County Board of Supervisors entered into, we’re actually required to go through a deliberative and meaningful process to try to figure out in advance how we’re going to accommodate each jurisdiction’s needs going forward. I’m more optimistic today that there’s an appetite on both sides of the river to have that meaningful conversation than I was say this time last year."
On countering residents’ skepticism towards another downtown plan, with city’s move to use a $17 million federal grant to reopen the Fulton Mall to vehicle traffic in an attempt at revitalization:
"I want to affirm the skepticism that Fresnans feel towards their downtown. And I understand it, and encounter it all the time when I speak with groups of people. I think it’s good to be skeptical because we’ve had a lot of trials and errors in downtown Fresno over the last 50 years. But I would draw a distinction between some of the more recent efforts. … This is simply a public infrastructure project. This is not the city proposing an entertainment venue and proposing to back a private business in their venture. This is simply doing what cities do. We do public infrastructure. Our approach in revitalizing our inner city is different from the past, in that we’re not trying to be developers. We’re not trying to put taxpayer dollars on the line to incentivize developers to come to this area."
"We can look to Fresnans who are skeptical and say, hey, we understand the skepticism. But if you knew that we could do this project without number one, raising your taxes; or number two, compromising service levels in any other part of the city, in other words we’re not taking funds from the pothole bank account that would otherwise provide infrastructure services in other parts of the city, this is entirely grant funded. We do have some local grant requirement in terms of a match, but those grant dollars we’re proposing to use could only be used for a similar project in the downtown area. Once you tell Fresnans that, they say ok, well, it’s worth a try."
On Fresno’s gang problem, and her response to the New York Times article about the city’s Bulldog street gang:
"We are diligent. We are still being extremely diligent. My response to the New York Times piece was trying to point out that they’re talking like this was 1999, and it’s not. We have reduced the gang population in half or more. That doesn’t mean that we can back off, that everything is fine and we can go home and pretend that there are no continued public safety challenges. I think Fresnans can rest assured in knowing that we have one of the most creative and effective law enforcement agencies when it comes to dealing with gangs. People come from around the nation to find out what we’re doing here because it has worked. I would also remind people that despite the incidents you mentioned in the last few weeks, overall our crime statistics are very positive for 2013. We’ve had about a 26 percent reduction in homicide, a 14 percent reduction in rape, a 9.5 percent reduction in robbery, a 4.3 percent reduction in aggravated assaults, shootings are down overall 5 percent. Overall violent crime is down 6.8 percent. Even on the property crime side, a couple of years ago we were seeing auto theft rates go back up even though as they were going back up they were nowhere near the highest levels of the 1990s, but still there were up and it was very concerning. But I’m very pleased to report that in the last month, our city hit its all time low for auto theft rates."
On Fresno’s still-precarious financial condition and the possibility that city services will never return to pre-recession levels:
"I believe that we are in a new normal. And I believe even as the economy comes back, we likely won’t return to some of the programs that we were offering when times were aplenty in the early 2000s. I think we learned our lesson. First of all we’re still quite a ways away from truly being financially stable we’re grateful that we’re balancing our budget this year, and we have enough money going in to match the expenses going out, and also we’ve got money set aside to pay down our debt. But until we pay off those negative fund balances, only then will we begin to build a cash reserve. We were named in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago as one of the most cash-less cities in America, and what that means is we just have no cushion. So thankfully we’ve been able to reduce our operating expenses, we’ve really reigned in spending so that we can make do with what we’ve got, but we have no money set aside for emergencies."
On priorities for the new fiscal year:
"I wish I could say that we’ve got this great opportunity with next year’s budget to establish priorities and new programs, that’s not going to be the case. That’s not going to be the case in my time in office, and I’ve got another three budgets to get through. We are rejoicing frankly over not having to do more layoffs. We are rejoicing over just being flat or just basically seeing enough revenue come back to the city to make up for the revenue we would of otherwise had through Measure G. We’re grateful that we’re at least stable. We want to continue to fund at least our existing operations, see no further reductions in service levels. We will prioritize paying down negative fund balances and establishing a reserve. That’s the only way we get truly financially healthy. I think in this next year, you’ll see us come up with some creative ways to improve landscaping and maintenance of public space, over this next year working with our existing resources, we’ve got some great staff working on a new approach to using our resources more efficiently so we can see fewer weeds, and more beautiful public landscaped areas. Obviously public safety, continued funding at the levels we’re at today will be a priority."