A proposal to guarantee that Fresno delivers planning department services on time received a 7-0 vote from the city council Thursday.
But council members also made it clear that important issues must be ironed out before the “money back guarantee” plan is adopted.
The bill, introduced by Garry Bredefled (District 6) and Steve Brandau (District 2), would return fees to developers if the city planning department, known as DARM, does not advance projects according to specified timelines.
“Over the course of 30 or 40 years, staffing levels have gone up. Staffing levels have come down. What has remained consistent is the problem in terms of the culture, the anti-business culture. And that is what this is an effort to address,” Bredefeld said upon introducing the bill.
While others on the council agreed with the concept of service and accountability, they had many questions about implementing the plan.
And, with that came several “friendly” amendments.
While the vote advances the bill, it will not be final until the amendments are sorted out and the council takes a second vote at a future meeting.
As Councilman Miguel Arias (District 3) said after the preliminary tally, “Don’t count your chickens.”
Even with debate on the finer points of implementation, all sides had one universal agreement: Developers would much rather have their projects proceed in a timely fashion than get their money back.
Developers Pushed for Money Back Guarantee
When Bredefeld first proposed the money back guarantee last year, it ran into resistance from Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.
Both vocalized support for the plan Thursday.
The building industry helped craft the plan and advocated for it during the debate.
Among those voicing their support: Josh Petersen of Wathen Castanos Homes and Darius Assemi of Granville Homes. Assemi is the publisher of GV Wire.
Petersen warned that there are many nearby communities where developers can go, including Clovis.
Dirk Poeschel, a planning consultant, called the proposal a “very creative solution.”
Union Concerned About Staffing
Sam Frank, the president of the union representing DARM workers, told the council that short-staffing jeopardizes the plan.
“We do not oppose a money back guarantee. What we do oppose is a business model that you do not gear up for a money back guarantee,” Frank said.
Frank said pressure should not be placed on DARM employees because they don’t control hiring.
“This act puts another job in their lap. They are already overworked. They are underpaid. They are trying their best to get caught up,” Frank said.
Frank’s argument won the support of Esmeralda Soria (District 1). She proposed an amendment to offer a $5,000 signing bonus to recruit new DARM employees.
“We’re not going solve the problem if we don’t fill the vacancies,” Soria said. “I’m tired of excuses.”
She likened a bonus to a similar program implemented for the police department.
Who Should be Accountable?
Arias put DARM director Jennifer Clark on the hot seat, asking if there were any studies or metrics to quantify a problem with her department. He also wanted to know how much the proposal would cost the city.
“You are asking us to approve a money back guarantee, with the administration’s support, without understanding the scope of the problem? Nor the potential impact fiscally?” Arias asked.
Clark stood at the podium silent, with no response.
Brand pointed out that such metrics aren’t available and most of the problems are anecdotal.
Soria said accountability begins on top. She needed assurances that more staff would be hired before she could support the bill.
“What surprises me is that this hasn’t been a priority for the last two years. And, it has to take the council to micromanage, to figure out how to get the job done. It’s frustrating,” she said.
Brand proposed a six-month trial period before any refunds could be given. A May 1 start date for the trial is envisioned. Progress reports would be issued monthly.
And, council approval would be required before DARM returns any fees.
Bredefeld and Brandau accepted the amendments.