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BFF? (Business Friendly Fresno?) Consulting Firm Needs More Time

Fresno City Hall

BFF? (Business Friendly Fresno?) Consulting Firm Needs More Time

NBS, a financial consulting firm, hired to to review fees in the planning, development, and safety divisions was supposed to be done by Aug. 1st, but It’s not done.

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A favorite pastime among Fresno City Hall critics is complaining about the planning department’s supposedly snail-like speed of doing business.

I’ve always thought the brickbats were unfair. We live in California, a deep blue, regulation-besotted state. If residential or commercial projects truly take a long time to gain approval, blame Sacramento, not City Hall.

There’s an item on Thursday’s City Council consent calendar that suggests the complex nature of the Development and Resource Management Department’s mission.

From my perspective, the only problem with the staff report on the DARM Fee Study Analysis is its tantalizing vagueness.

To set the stage, developers of all sizes, whether a big commercial builder or the owner of a single house in need of a major overhaul, must pay fees when making certain changes to their property. These planning and development fees are itemized in the city’s master fee schedule.

The planning/development schedule I found on the Internet runs to 50 pages. It covers everything from conditional use permits, code violations, inspections and commercial tenant improvements to building plan checks, foundation permits, noise plan checks and certificates of occupancy.

The planning department used to be an enterprise department, meaning the department when it came to finances was supposed to be self-sustaining. City Hall tried to recover the cost of providing the service, not a penny more or less. If I recall correctly, the planning department transitioned to DARM during Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s first term. It was the time of the Great Recession. DARM then transitioned to a general fund department. Again, I’m going by memory here.

That being said, it’s always been the case that there’s a certain tension between planning/development fees and market conditions. This is reflected in how the City Council and the Administration have tweaked fees over the years. Developers who build/revitalize in politically-favored areas – low-income neighborhoods, for example – are apt to get breaks on certain mandatory fees.

Put all this together – the quantity of fees on the books, the developers’ desire to pare every cent possible from a project’s cost, the politics of regulating growth – and it makes reform of the master fee schedule a chore only for the brave.

For instance, what is a fair fee for a “bluff preservation soils report review”?

Coming up with the best possible answer is part of every mayor’s effort to make Fresno as business friendly as possible while paying homage to legal/environmental mandates issued from above.

On March 26, DARM contracted with NBS, a financial consulting firm, to do a thorough review of fees in the planning, development and safety divisions.

According to city documents, the analysis is to look at operational program needs; operational reserve requirements; the need to remain competitive within the development community; the need to ensure that the rate structure complies with the requirements of Proposition 218 and any other applicable state statues (I take this last point to mean the fee structure can’t generate a “profit” for the general fund).

The analysis was supposed to be done by Aug. 1. It’s not done.

The council on Thursday will be asked to extend the deadline to June 28, 2019.

Says DARM Assistant Director Mike Sanchez in a report: “Due to the complexities of the analysis involved, additional analysis is being requested to complete the fee study update…. This will allow ample (time) to review the proposed updated fee study and conduct stakeholder meetings with those impacted by the study.”

Sanchez in his report addresses the bottom line: “This extension does not include an increase in funding. The cost for the study has (been) set not to exceed $50,000…. No additional General Fund appropriations are required for this contract.”

This is the way I read all of the above: 1.) City Hall figured it could hire a consulting firm for $50,000; 2.) The consultants would need only four months to come up with a new planning/development master fee schedule that would help rank Fresno among California’s most business friendly cities; 3.) Somewhere along the line everyone realized four months wasn’t enough time to do all the work; 4.) The amount of time needed to do the additional work is 11 months, nearly three times the original work period; 5.) The additional work includes more outreach to “stakeholders,” i.e. big-time developers; 6.) Those should be some interesting stakeholder/consultant meetings; 7.) It’ll all get done by next summer and won’t cost Fresno taxpayers an additional cent.

I can’t figure out how DARM so badly underestimated the time needed to do the analysis. I can’t figure out how $50,000 was a good price for four months of consulting work, and now that same $50,000 is a good price for 15 months of consulting work.

I hope those stakeholder/consultant meetings are open to the public.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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