News Column

City Hall veteran picked to be Fresno's controller-finance director

September 4, 2014

By George Hostetter, The Fresno Bee



Sept. 04--Fresno City Hall veteran Michael Lima has been named the city's new controller/finance director.

City Manager Bruce Rudd made the announcement Wednesday. Lima's appointment needs City Council approval; the council will take it up Sept. 11.

"Mr. Lima is a long-standing, well-respected professional within our organization who has extensive municipal finance experience and a strong understanding of the city of Fresno's fiscal structure," Rudd said. "He is exceptionally qualified to lead the wide range of comprehensive finance support services to the mayor, the City Council, and all city departments."

Lima has been the city's airports finance manager for the past 12 years. He makes $96,440 a year in that job. He will make $150,000 annually as controller/finance director.

Lima is heading into a position that once was among the most powerful at City Hall, but in recent years seems to have largely disappeared from public view.

A controller deals with the oversight of money, making it a high-profile job in any government. It's not for nothing that Mayor Ashley Swearengin, despite campaign promises to serve two full terms as Fresno's chief executive, is taking a mid-term gamble on becoming California's controller.

Fresno's charter makes controller a special job by requiring council approval of the city manager's selection. The charter also identifies the job's powers. The controller makes sure the city doesn't spend more money than it takes in. The controller, through the city manager, tells the council once a month just how far Fresno's financial head is above water.

The controller's office has been a launching pad for careers. Andy Souza was Fresno's controller in the 1990s before moving up to assistant city manager and city manager. Ruth Quinto was named controller in 2001, moved into the city manager's office a few years later and now is Fresno Unified School District's chief financial officer.

Everything at City Hall touches on money, which explains why the controller in those years routinely went before the City Council to speak publicly on the most volatile topics.

It was controller Randy Carlton who juggled questions about the financial health of the Fresno Grizzlies' owner before the council in 2000 voted to build a nearly $50 million baseball stadium.

It was Quinto who carried the ball when then-Mayor Alan Autry wanted to refinance some $200 million of pension obligation bonds in 2002 and when some on the council wanted City Hall to co-sign on a bank loan for Granite Park.

But Fresno's controller has been a wallflower of late. Longtime Assistant Controller Karen Bradley is highly regarded in City Hall, but has shown no interest in the top spot on a permanent basis. Joe Gray took the job early in Swearengin's first term but lasted only about two years and left no impression after he departed.

Bradley, as she's done before, has filled in capably during the latest vacuum at the top spot. So, why fill the job now?

Lima's promotion may be a sign that City Hall is headed toward a place once viewed as off-limits -- the bond market.

Lima has administered the airports' annual operating, debt service and capital budgets averaging nearly $40 million. He served as the lead staff member responsible for assembling various multimillion-dollar finance agreements, including the bond issuance for the new rental car facility at Fresno Yosemite International Airport in 2007 and the refinancing of the airport terminal concourse bonds in 2013.

Lima has 25 years of government experience. Of those, 20 years have been with the city. He has served as a key member in finance, including 12 years with the Airports Department and eight years with the Budget and Management Studies Division.

As the controller/finance director, Lima will be responsible for the development and implementation of the policies and procedures relating to finance planning, fund investment and revenue enhancement, accounting and auditing as well as licenses and business tax.

Swearengin has plans for a huge upgrade to the city's water system. These include construction of a surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno that could cost as much as $225 million.

That's probably going to take money loaned to a city whose financial woes over the past five years made it a stinker in the eyes of Wall Street credit-rating agencies. Any bond deal for a new water system would have a dedicated payment source -- monthly ratepayer checks -- making it less risky than, say, the stadium construction bonds dependent largely on the general fund.

But such a bond deal would still have "Fresno" written all over it. One of Lima's priorities may be to turn that into an endorsement in investors' eyes.

City Manager Rudd said as much in an email to The Bee.

Rudd said Lima's mission is to help Fresno tackle the next big financial challenge: Wise asset management now that the threat of bankruptcy has faded.

"Nothing grand or creative," Rudd said. "Just trying to get back to the basics."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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(c)2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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Source: Fresno Bee, The (CA)


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