By Dillon Savory
From the beginning of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s tenure in 2009, a broken record has been heard coming from the steps of Fresno City Hall: “The city is broke. We must make cuts! The city is broke. We must make cuts.”
For the first few years of her term, the record rang true. City unions gathered to make contract concessions. City services were limited. Layoffs were almost a routine story in the Fresno Bee.
Granted, organized labor almost universally supported now Assembly Member Henry T. Perea in a contentious race against Swearengin for Fresno’s top job. But that never led to speculation that these cuts weren’t in the best interest of the city during a worldwide recession.
Over the last two years, however, rumors of Swearengin’s plan to privatize several of the city’s self-sustaining departments have raised the ears of Fresno’s labor unions.
“The city is broke. We must make cuts!” she maintained.
First on her chopping block was the commercial solid waste division, an organized unit of trash collectors that serviced local businesses. That decision shocked many in the community.
Only a year earlier, Swearengin could be seen in a Bee photo with the nation’s top garbage collector, who won an award for excellent service. On top of that, Fresno’s solid waste division has recently been ranked No. 1 nationally for recycling, which the mayor benefited from publicly.
After months of debate, however, the mayor and a majority of the Fresno City Council agreed to sell off the service in exchange for revenues to the general fund. Exclusive franchises were granted to two private companies that would absorb the Enterprise Fund services but return fees to the city’s General Fund. Sound legal?
Throughout that process, skepticism began to rise about the mayor’s agenda for Fresno’s future. Stockton had just declared bankruptcy, the crime rates in Fresno were rising. Less cops on the streets and the threat of insolvency forced more concessions and kept skepticism at bay a bit longer, until now.
After winning a second term with almost zero effort, Swearengin has set her sights on city labor contracts and the (much larger) residential solid waste division.
“The city is broke. We must make cuts!” she continues.
While organized labor was gathering in historical masses in the last election cycle to win major victories, Swearengin was using her political savvy to fast track franchise agreements to Mid Valley Disposal to outsource Fresno’s award-winning residential trash service.
High dollar managers and costly consultants on staff at City Hall have jeopardized the mayor’s credibility on Fresno’s need to outsource.
Although no one in organized labor questions Fresno’s General Fund woes, serious questions have arisen about the necessity to privatize the city’s most successful Enterprise Fund department.
Legally, money for Enterprise Fund services cannot be used for anything in the General Fund. Why is this the mayor’s top priority?
The deal goes like this: Fresno sells every piece of trash collecting equipment it owns to Mid Valley for pennies on the dollar. Mid Valley agrees to keep rates low for a few years. Fresno receives at least $2.5 million annually to the General Fund.
In other words, the city is creating a hidden privatization tax. The money Fresno citizens currently pay to maintain a core city service would now be paid to a private company, which will funnel those dollars back into the city’s discretionary fund. If Mid Valley raises rates, more money goes to City Hall to spend.
Conversely, although trash service is maintained by the city’s Enterprise Fund, those dollars pay for service only and the extra cash builds into a reserve fund that can’t be touched by the administration. That reserve fund sits currently at $12 million.
“The city is broke. We must make cuts!” The mayor screams.
After building a mountain of reasons this deal would be bad for the city, citizens were beat to the punch by Swearengin, who locked up a majority of City Council votes long before the process began.
In late December, Fresno’s trash service was officially signed away to Mid Valley Disposal. Multiple late-night City Council meetings all ended with the exact same votes in favor of outsourcing, despite increasing community unrest on the issue.
The outrage was minimized by Swearengin’s close friends in the media. That didn’t stop the citizens, however. Organized labor led an 18-day successful referendum drive that brought almost 40,000 signatures to City Hall demanding a voice in the matter. The threshold to force an election was just under 22,000.
Although the broken record continues to play at City Hall, the mayor has begun to sprinkle in mentions of bankruptcy and public safety cuts much more often, anticipating a close election. Her rhetoric and budget figures change almost weekly at this point.
It’s increasingly obvious now that Swearengin’s budget numbers are just smoke and mirrors. She doesn’t have an agenda for the city’s long-term financial plan. In fact, if you study the numbers closely, the $2.5 million in franchise fees won’t even plug the budget gap Fresno is facing.
The mayor appears to be killing two birds with one stone. She would be receiving free money to the General Fund without asking to raise taxes via a traditional route, while ridding the administration of a collective bargaining agreement. Those “big union bosses,” as she has grown fond of calling organized labor of late.
After decades of burdensome spending mistakes that have financially crushed Fresno’s General Fund, the mayor has been handcuffed on this issue by responsible citizens.
The city owes itself upward of $30 million from past failed projects. Adding to that list of failures is not something many residents are willing to do, especially for a department that shines light on a city known too often for violence and embarrassment.
Fresno residents love their trash service and their low city rates. They understand that companies exist to make a profit, cities don’t.
With legal challenges mounting, citizens upset and her popularity wavering, Mayor Swearengin is pulling out all the stops to come out successful in the June 4 special election.
Her war chest is full, but her message is empty.
Fresno residents are finally primed to break the broken record.
Dillon Savory is the political coordinator for the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.