Over the past eight years, Fresno has been in the skilled hands of Ashley Swearengin. In an era of rapid private-sector innovation and relatively diminished public capacity, cities like Fresno have struggled to fund infrastructure and grow their economies due to changing conditions. Fresno, however, managed to reduce costs and utilize the markets that were created by the California High Speed Rail investments. Mayor Swearengin has fought hard to prove to foundations, investors, and companies that Fresno is investment-ready, and a leader on how cities can support long-term growth. A veteran of water, transportation, and economic development battles, the former Mayor opines on lessons learned during her productive eight years. VX News is pleased to present an exit interview with former Mayor Swearengin, who recently took over as CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation.
VX News: You’re joining VX News for this interview only months after completing two terms as mayor of Fresno, where you were much acclaimed by your constituents, as well as regional and statewide leadership. Share some of your city’s accomplishments during your time as mayor, and what your successor is most likely to build upon.
Ashley Swearengin: Our three big priorities were: the financial health of the city; the land-use policies, regulations, and infrastructure necessary to support a different growth pattern on the Valley floor; and drought-proofing our city to ensure we can provide for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren when it comes to water.
The first was a circumstantial issue that we had to take on, because the recession and past financial practices had left the city in a very vulnerable position. The housing boom-and-bust cycle notoriously impacts the San Joaquin Valley as much as anywhere in the country, and this last recession was no exception; it hit us very hard.
Overall, we found ourselves with about $120 million in accumulating operating deficits. We had borrowed from our own treasury pool over the years, and those internal debts had mounted to about $36 million. When I started my first term, the city had 4,000 employees; we had to reduce our workforce to about 3,300. Over time, we paid off our internal debt. We managed to hang on to our service levels, and slowly began to improve them. Ultimately, I left the city with almost a $20-million cash reserve. The credit markets have responded positively, and we’ve seen credit rating increases because of that work. If the city stays on the course we set, it can achieve its total financial plan in the next five years.
Though that work was born out of crisis, it would have needed to be done anyway. Being on solid financial footing is the basis for everything else you want to do as a city.
VX News: You were Fresno’s mayor when the governor ended community redevelopment, and you’ve also experienced the challenge to employment growth posed by automation and robotics. Share how you addressed these challenges—especially vis-à-vis public finances.
Ashley Swearengin: The state’s move to eliminate the redevelopment authority didn’t have a direct impact on the Municipal Services Corporation budget, because previous leaders had separated out the redevelopment agency decades before. Other cities had comingled a lot of services and funds with the redevelopment authority. Thankfully, we didn’t have to sort through that; it operated as a standalone agency.
The reality is, however, that we lost a major financing tool. As a very large city with a very large footprint, which is now proactively trying to rebuild its inner city and urban core, not having a dedicated revenue stream is certainly a challenge. But it’s the hand cities have been dealt in California, and we made peace with it a while ago. The city has in no way fully addressed the shortfall of funds, but we’ve had to find a path forward without it. Economic development is such a big issue in the Central Valley. In my time in office, we did a lot of work to better position ourselves for job-creating investment. That brings me to our second big area of work: land-use, regulatory reform, and intentionally lining up our infrastructure dollars in support of that policy.
Our goals in this effort were, first, the revitalization, infill, and redevelopment of large parts of our city—not just the Downtown area—and second, supporting industrial development and export-oriented job creation. Industry is a good match for Fresno’s economy today. When I started in office, we had a deficit of shovel-ready land that could accommodate large industrial users. We created zone districts that accommodated industrial use, then created by-right uses within those districts to make it very easy. Then we focused a little bit of road money on one major industrial area.
Today, we have 700-800 acres shovel-ready. Those acres are now starting to move with major job-creation users. We saw a definite response from the market to that focus in our policy and regulatory framework, and in our infrastructure dollars.
VX News: Let’s pivot to high-speed rail. You’ve said that high-speed rail, by itself, will not be enough to move Fresno toward its vision. Share how you molded this infrastructure investment opportunity for Fresno.
Ashley Swearengin: Connecting Fresno to Silicon Valley in 45 minutes for $80 will absolutely be a game-changer for us, and for the whole Central Valley. As mayor, I wanted to make sure we did not let that incredible opportunity go to waste. That meant being very clear about how we could accommodate additional investment in a way that reinforced our revitalization goals—including housing and mixed-use development—instead of setting up Fresno, and the whole Central Valley, for more sprawl.
We wanted to reorient the market that is opening up as a result of high-speed rail toward high-value development investment—not more cookie-cutter homes built on the periphery to access the transportation hub in Fresno. Otherwise, we could end up with a scenario where it becomes so easy to access Silicon Valley that the Central Valley becomes nothing but a sprawling bedroom community forever.
That’s why it was so important that we took on the land-use planning and regulatory changes, and the redirection of our infrastructure dollars, that we did.
VX News: How have you conveyed the economic potential of high-speed rail for the Central Valley to the region’s representatives in DC and Sacramento?
Ashley Swearengin: In the Valley, we have historically had so many deficits that it’s easy to get lost in arguing over which priority needs to move first. My perspective is: We can’t debate whether we need water or educational infrastructure or transportation infrastructure. We have to push for all of those things.
Even with substantial investment in water supply, quality, and reliability; educational infrastructure; and our massive transportation infrastructure needs—even with all three of those things—we still face incredible odds for turning around this part of the state. My message to folks in DC and in Sacramento has always been: Let’s not fight over one or the other; let’s demand all of these things for our region. For me, it has always been both-and, not either-or.
VX News: Let’s turn to water, another high-priority issue for any Central Valley elected. This month, you participated in the PPIC’s water summit, Water Stress and a Changing San Joaquin Valley. Share the thrust of your remarks, especially your priorities with respect to water.
Ashley Swearengin: California water issues are among the most complicated and technical in our country. I don’t want to suggest that I offer answers better than those that people with expertise in this area can bring to the table. But what I can offer, as a former city leader, is perspective on how the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will dramatically impact the way the Central Valley moves forward as a region.
The city of Fresno, thankfully, is well positioned in terms of access to surface water. We have access to 60,000 acre-feet from Friant, and another 120,000 acre-feet from the Kings River through the Fresno Irrigation District. However, over the decades, we’ve never built the treatment facilities needed to take advantage of these allocations that we have the opportunity to draw on. Instead, because it’s cheaper to use groundwater, we just kept drilling wells. Under my administration, we moved forward very aggressively to start using our surface water.
That meant, of course, that we had to adjust our water rates. No elected official wants to tell his or her constituents that their taxes or their water bills are going to go up, but that’s what we had to do. We left other rates stable or increased them only slightly in order to absorb some of the burden. But overall, utility bills in the city of Fresno were adjusted by 30 percent, which included doubling our water rates. Ultimately—after a long public process, rate fee challenges, a referendum, a couple lawsuits, and people’s understandable concern—we adopted a rate plan that provides for hundreds of millions of dollars of water capital to allow us to access our surface water.
We had just gotten through that process when SGMA went into effect in January 2015. We did not do this work in concert at all. We simply knew we had to do it, because we value our neighboring farming communities, and we knew that we had to stop drilling out of the ground so that they could have access to groundwater as well as surface water. SGMA requires cities to have a plan to balance their aquifers by 2020. We will be able to get into our surface water by that time. If the city of Fresno had not gone to all that effort and expenditure, there would have been absolutely no way our groundwater basin could have come into compliance.
What I hope to do at the summit is draw attention to this issue from a community and city standpoint. Cities have to figure out how they’re going to meet their surface water requirements so that they’re not constantly pumping out of the ground. We need that groundwater for agriculture; it is the basis of our economy. And because of SGMA, we can no longer avoid the conflict between municipal and agricultural water. We have to resolve it. The city of Fresno has already looked down the barrel of that rifle and said, “We’ve got to do something differently here.” I don’t think many other Valley cities are prepared in the same way.
VX News: Having now been termed out of office, you have a new position as the head of the Central Valley Community Foundation. Elaborate on that opportunity, and why you chose to pursue it after being mayor of Fresno.
Ashley Swearengin: I’m absolutely thrilled to be here at the Central Valley Community Foundation. This is a 51-year-old organization, the founders of which were some of the brightest, most forward-thinking, dedicated philanthropists on the Valley floor. They had a heart for this region and a passion for philanthropy, and they wanted to set up an organization that could provide in perpetuity for the charitable and philanthropic needs of Fresno and of the Valley.
After my work at City Hall, and the 10 years prior working in community and economic development in Fresno metro, I know that we are investment-worthy. There’s no question about the need; you can look at any slice of data you want and see that we face deep and stark challenges. But it has been difficult to prove to foundations, investors, and others that we’re investment-ready. Now—because of the work we’ve done to set ourselves up for major progress on educational attainment, revitalization, protecting farmland, and supporting high-value-added jobs—we are teed up and ready to go.
We need investment here. And while philanthropy is not the only tool, it is a major tool. Being part of an organization that’s committed to bringing additional resources to this area, and to seeing the Central Valley flourish, is something that I’m very passionate about. I get excited to come to work every morning when I wake up. I’ve just finished my sixth week. We have big plans for what we want to see happen here in the Central Valley, and we are really excited to play a role in that.
VX News: Fresno recently received a $1.5-million grant from the California Energy Commission for microgrid planning. Address the importance of energy efficiency to Fresno’s growth, and the energy infrastructure upgrades that you wish to see made.
Ashley Swearengin: It makes perfect sense that the part of the state that has to be heated and cooled year-round, that has among the lowest-income population in the state and in the nation, and that struggles with multiple sources of pollution would be the place to figure out energy efficiency and renewable energy.
I see this initial investment from the California Energy Commission as a great first step. We’ve got a lot of learning to do as a region, in the public as well as the private sector, on how best to start to move that needle. There is a lot of motivation to do so, given the conditions that we experience here. We have ag trimmings; we have manure; we have all possible kinds of waste here. We ought to be a place for massive deployment of renewable energy, and where we can find a way to lower power costs as well. It’s a big challenge, and I’m excited to see what our partners come up with.
VX News: Finally, Zócalo Public Square columnist Joe Matthews penned an op-ed arguing that Central Valley cities are key to state growth. How can Fresno navigate the gridlock in Washington and California to get to goal on economic growth?
Ashley Swearengin: I appreciated that Matthews pointed out that Fresno has made major strides with the resources it controls. That’s how a city has to go about navigating complicated bureaucracy, politics, resource shortages, etc.: You have to do with what you’ve got. You have to make as much progress as possible with the resources and authorities you have at the local level.
In the Central Valley, we sometimes think that the challenges are too big, there’s nothing we can do, and we just have to wait for someone to show up and save us. It’s not going to happen. No one is going to come in and rescue you. But if, as a city, you demonstrate that you’re making changes to local policy and using local resources wisely to support long-term growth and vision, that does open doors. It’s a formula that can work for any community: Start fixing what you can. In the process, you’ll develop the civic muscle you need to draw down significant resources from the state and outside investors, and accomplish your vision for your community.