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City Council poses with tiny houses, trains fire at Fulton budget

Fresno City Hall

City Council poses with tiny houses, trains fire at Fulton budget

Four quick thoughts on a quick Thursday at Fresno City Hall:

1.) A “tiny house” sat for about five hours along P Street for all to see. City officials are proud of their new development code, which makes it easier for a Fresnan to plop one of these mini-abodes in her back yard and stay legal.

This one was less than 300 square feet in size – living room, kitchen, bathroom, stairs to a sleeping loft some 10 feet off the ground. The house was bigger and roomier than I expected. I thought living arrangements would be as tight as in those World War II-era army barracks I enjoyed many years ago.

Tiny houses are the rage these days on reality TV. Seeing one in person made me think of my youth.

A tiny house is pretty much the tree house you always wanted your father to build, only without the tree. All that was missing from the tiny house at City Hall was the tin-cans-and-a-string telephone.

2.) Council President Paul Caprioglio glanced at the Council Chamber clock that said 8:30 a.m. – starting time. He saw that Steve Brandau, Lee Brand and Clint Olivier were in their seats.

“I’ve got a quorum,” Caprioglio said.

The meeting began. Sal Quintero, Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria soon arrived. It was hard to tell if tardy slips were waiting for them.

“Cap” runs a tight ship, and this is only his second week with the reins of power.

But his colleagues know how to get even.

Caprioglio raised some eyebrows on the dais last week when he unilaterally decreed that there would be no more than five ceremonial presentations per council meeting and no more than two per district per meeting.

This Thursday’s agenda included three detailed and, at times, slow-as-molasses workshops. That was Caprioglio’s doing. As council president, he sets the agenda.

Brandau after the meeting told me he and the other lower-ranking council members have given a new marching order to their leader – one, and only one, workshop per meeting.

Caprioglio on Thursday evening said he will exercise “my presidential veto.”

Brandau and Caprioglio both spoke lightheartedly. But the quasi-rebellion did succeed to a degree. Caprioglio said he will limit staff presentations during workshops to a maximum of 10 minutes.

3.) Communications Director Mark Standriff issued a statement from City Manager Bruce Rudd on the Summerset Village Apartments issue. The complex is owned by Chris Henry.

“While we’re encouraged by the level of repairs taking place at the Summerset Village Apartments, I am a long, long way from determining the final penalties for Mr. Henry’s negligence,” Rudd said. “The City has incurred significant costs at this property and we need to be reimbursed. Therefore, any discussions related to reducing the penalties are premature and will not occur until every apartment passes inspection and the owner can demonstrate that the level of repairs made exceeded what was needed to simply address the code violations identified by staff.

“More important, I have committed to the Mayor to implementing comprehensive changes to the manner in which we approach code enforcement. As such, we can no longer afford to allow negligent property owners to simply write a check, say they’re sorry, and then go back to business as usual. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Henry and the other property owners who choose to compromise the safety of our residents, are/will find themselves on probation and will stay there until they can demonstrate a sustained commitment to providing safe and clean living conditions for all our residents.”

Rudd and Mayor Ashley Swearengin are to be commended for moving forcefully on code enforcement.

But I must admit I don’t understand the concept of “probation” as used in Rudd’s statement. I made several phone calls Thursday night, trying to get a handle on what it means in this context.

I didn’t get a clear answer.

As the first word in “code enforcement” makes clear, we’re dealing with the law. Does Rudd have the authority to decide on his own which property owners are put on probation and which aren’t? If he has this authority, who gave it to him? Is there a public hearing before the property owner is put on probation? Is there an appeal process? And what happens if the property owner violates the terms of probation? Does that automatically trigger the city’s “receivership” option for uncooperative property owners?

If there had been a probation hearing involving Henry and his Summerset Village Apartments, I wish City Hall had told me. I would have been there.

4.) It looks like work will soon begin on ripping up Fulton Mall and returning cars to the six blocks of Fulton Corridor between Inyo and Tuolumne streets.

The city on Wednesday got a favorable ruling from a federal judge on a lawsuit filed by mall supporters.

“A major hurdle to this project has been cleared,” Swearengin said in a statement.

There almost certainly are more hurdles to be cleared. I’m betting the friends of Fulton Mall are far from surrendering.

Still, the chatter at Thursday’s council meeting was all about putting the bow on the construction project’s financing package. The city’s got about $21 million in hand. The estimated cost is about $2.25 million more than that.

No need to worry. City officials and the contractor (American Paving) got together and brought out a tool called “value engineering.” I love that term. Is it meant to imply that sometimes engineers don’t exercise proper or wise values when bidding a contract?

Anyway, value engineering reduced the project’s estimated cost by a cool $2.55 million. That’s right, the math wizards reduced the funding gap by $300,000 more than necessary.

For the most part, they did this by eliminating less-than-vital stuff.

Why is this so darned important? Because Swearengin, in order to get the council to approve the American Paving contract, had to promise 1.) to bring the project in at the $21 million mark, and 2.) not use a penny of general fund money along the way.

My point here isn’t to get lost in the weeds of what was removed and what was left in. Just the opposite. My point is to suggest that all this talk about fulfilling Swearengin’s two Fulton Corridor promises is so much poppycock.

This Fulton-Mall-to-Fulton-Street project promises to be one of the big stories of 2016. The grand opening in 2017 should be even bigger. If Swearengin is right, and there’s ample reason to think she’ll eventually be vindicated, then getting this project done – and done right – will be a major boost to downtown revitalization. A headache that has plagued city officials for decades (the utter collapse of the Fulton Mall promise) will be gone forever.

Swearengin is termed out in January 2017. A new mayor, blessed with a clean slate, will be in charge. At the same time, there will be a new council member in District 6. In January 2019, there will be new council members in districts 3, 5 and 7.

And, as city managers have been telling Fresno for decades, government money is fungible (mutually interchangeable) in more ways that the average bloke can imagine.

In short, the Fulton Corridor project will come in under budget (officially). It will have every bell and whistle and amenity it needs to succeed (eventually). Everyone who makes these decisions in the coming months, years, decades will have all the cover they need (politically).

The People will demand it. The People in 2017 and all the years after aren’t going to put up with shortchanging the Fulton Corridor project just so a fading politician or two can say they kept a budget promise that had long ago lost its relevance and potency.

I spoke in these terms with two powerful city officials Thursday afternoon.

They agreed.

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