The Oversight Board on Wednesday agreed on a 6-0 vote to sell a former school site to the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.
The sale price is $100,000, not the $1 that EOC officials wanted.
However, the deal means the EOC can continue running its Head Start program out of what used to be Franklin Elementary School in West Fresno.
The big question: Will the state Department of Finance, which has the final say, give the deal a thumb’s up?
Only time will tell.
The deal was the result of more than an hour of discussion in open session between board members and EOC Executive Director Brian Angus. Board Member Larry Westerlund’s motion to approve the sale included several pieces in addition to price.
First, some context.
The Successor Agency (essentially the old Fresno Redevelopment Agency) owns a parcel of about five acres on the corner of Fresno Street and California Avenue in West Fresno. The Agency must sell the parcel as part of the state-mandated process of dissolving the RDA. The site for about 40 years has been home to the EOC’s Franklin Head Start program (serving nearly 200 youngsters per year).
The Oversight Board is charged with ensuring a fair and legal deal for all parties of interest. I wrote about the Board’s challenge several days ago in CVObserver. No need here to rehash all that detail. It’s sufficient to note that Board members faced a big hurdle – pay all due respect to the fine work done by EOC at Franklin while maximizing the dollar value of the Franklin property.
The latter part of that mission isn’t greed. It’s the law. The money from the sale is divided among various government entities (or taxing agencies, as they’re called) such as City Hall, Fresno County and certain special districts.
The Franklin parcel had been appraised at $1.837 million. Angus said the EOC doesn’t have the cash to pay full market value. At the same time, he added, the EOC can’t afford to move the Franklin operation to another site and keep it at the same scale.
EOC over the decades has invested far more cash in maintaining the Franklin site than its current appraised value of $1.837 million, Angus said. The societal value of Franklin Head Start to the families of West Fresno and the community at large is hard to calculate in monetary terms but surely exceeds the appraised value, he added.
All this is the background for the restrictions that Westerlund added to his motion (the restrictions were the result of spirited talk among the Board’s six members in attendance; County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, the Board’s seventh member, was absent).
Westerlund said the deal must have a 25-year “reversionary” clause (a quarter-century was Board Member Doug Vagim’s idea). If the EOC doesn’t play by all the rules of the deal, the Franklin parcel reverts back to its original owner. Of course, what the original owner – the Fresno Successor Agency, formerly the Fresno RDA – looks like or is called in, say 20 years, is anyone’s guess.
Westerlund said the Franklin site for those 25 years must remain a preschool for low-income families (which sums up the essence of Head Start).
At some point in the future, City Hall has the option of extending one of the neighborhood’s side streets through a portion of the Franklin parcel. City officials are anticipating considerable development in West Fresno in the coming years. Such a street extension would require the city to buy some of the Franklin parcel for the blacktop and sidewalks – the “right of way.” Westerlund said the money from a “right of way” sale must go to the taxing agencies, not the EOC.
Should the street extension occur, the Franklin parcel would become two separate pieces. The bigger piece, containing the classrooms of the former Franklin Elementary School, would continue to house the Head Start program. The smaller piece, about 39,000 square feet, would pretty much be useless to EOC. Should this happen, Westerlund said, the remnant must be offered to City Hall at no cost.
The city currently has a pocket park at Fresno Street and California. Westerlund said he can’t speak for future city leaders. But, he added, it would make sense to use the remnant to expand the size of the pocket park.
Finally, Westerlund said the deal should include an official declaration that the Board – by getting $100,000 in cash; by ensuring that the Franklin Head Start program continues to operate at current scale and without interruption; by including guarantees that eliminate any EOC incentive to flip the Franklin parcel for a quick equity profit – has fulfilled its legal duty to maximize the overall sale value of the Franklin parcel.
Getting to the details of Westerlund’s motion involved a great deal of policy debate. Successor Agency Executive Director Marlene Murphey added her insight when asked. The Board and Murphey did a superb job.
I mention this because Wednesday’s meeting may have been the last official get-together of the Fresno Oversight Board. Come this summer, the Fresno Board and the other Oversight Boards in Fresno County will disappear. In their place will be a single Oversight Board serving the entire county. (Murphey’s shop won’t disappear.)
The Fresno Oversight Board has been around for about six years. I think Westerlund and Vagim, a former Fresno County supervisors) are the only original Board members to stick it out to the bitter end. Murphey was there every step of the way, too.
As a Fresno Bee reporter, I was “present at the creation” (to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase) of the Oversight Board. Those were wild times.
Board members had a tough job. Redevelopment agency law/policy is complex stuff. The Fresno RDA had been around for about 60 years; it acquired a lot of baggage along the way. State law dissolving California’s RDAs is no walk in the park, either (and state lawmakers occasionally changed the law).
Last, but not least, there is the human element. Interests collided in countless ways. But the Board had a job to do and didn’t have eternity to work with. Sometimes the decision-making process was mystifying to outsiders.
Wednesday’s meeting provided a good example. In answering questions from Vagim, Angus acknowledged that the EOC annually spends millions of dollars on Head Start programs throughout the county. Vagim’s fundamental point: Maybe EOC can afford to pay more than $1 for the Franklin parcel. Westerlund took this theme and elaborated on it. Westerlund caught me by surprise when he suddenly asked Angus if EOC would pay $100,000 instead of $1. Angus replied with a simple “yes.”
No one asked: If EOC will pay $100,000, might it pay, say, $125,000? Or some other amount more than $100,000?
Maybe the failure to push Angus on the price was a mistake. Maybe not. Maybe what’s important is that a workable deal got made and life can move on.
So it went on the Fresno Oversight Board for a half-dozen years. Board members past and present did their public duty, and did it well.
Citizens of Fresno – give them a hand.