Fresno’s effort to hold its planning department accountable for delays in approving development projects may be eliminated after 18 months.
The City Council will consider repealing its Money Back Guarantee program at a special meeting on Thursday. Councilmember Garry Bredefeld authored the plan, arguing that an “anti-business culture” existed within the city’s planning department. Many from Fresno’s business community backed the effort as well.
Council President Miguel Arias is sponsoring the repeal, arguing the plan didn’t work.
“It was a well intended policy with too many loopholes to be effective.” — City Council President Miguel Arias
“It’s simple. It has been completely ineffective,” Arias said. “It was a well intended policy with too many loopholes to be effective.”
The council passed the Money Back Guarantee unanimously in January 2019. It required the planning department to approve qualified development projects on time, or else refund application fees paid to the city.
A budget motion last week to eliminate the program passed 5-0. Arias’ proposed repeal measure does not specify what, if anything, happens next.
Arias: Program Not Meeting Goals
Arias said that while no money had to be refunded, it actually made the planning department, known at City Hall as DARM, more difficult to work with.
“We all underestimated the creativity of the bureaucracy within the city and the work arounds that have been utilized,” Arias said.
For example, Arias said the city would not accept incomplete applications, delaying the start time for meeting deadlines Money Back Guarantee laid out.
Arias also said the program exempted government projects. That led to delays for such projects as the BMX bike track at Mary Ella Brown Community Center.
“They’re being put at the bottom of the pile for processing so that the staff can focus on the private sector submission,” Arias said.
He’s concerned that the Fresno City College west Fresno campus project could be delayed.
“Repealing the MBG program does nothing to change what has been and are on-going problems for our citizens and businesses that have to deal with the City of Fresno.’ — City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld
“It’s very rare that that government repeals or eliminates programs when they’ve proven to be ineffective. It’s a positive move forward that the council is going to repeal its own program when there’s no evidence that it’s actually met the intended outcome of becoming a more business friendly city,” Arias said.
City Bureaucracy Still a Problem Says Bredefeld
Bredefeld pushed for Money Back Guarantee for years, eventually getting it passed in 2019. He tells GV Wire℠ the program had its successes but still did not address all problems.
“The City of Fresno has been known for many decades as anti-business and difficult to get projects approved in a reasonable and timely manner,” Bredefeld said in an email. “It was successful in making sure applications that came to the City were more complete and that the City took more seriously their responsibility to move projects forward quickly.”
According to city data from February, prior to the pandemic, the city completed 99% of applications submitted under the program.
“Despite this success, the bureaucracy still resisted many needed changes and made it even harder for the private sector. Repealing the MBG program does nothing to change what has been and are on-going problems for our citizens and businesses that have to deal with the City of Fresno. With the new Mayor taking office in January and with the change on Council, It’s my hope that we will continue our efforts at changing the anti-business culture so we can dramatically improve the economic climate in Fresno,” Bredefeld said.
Business Group Staying Neutral
Mike Prandini, president and CEO of the Building Industry of America of Fresno/Madera Counties, says his membership is staying neutral on the issue.
The building industry group supported the program when it passed last year.
“I can’t say one way or the other (whether Money Back Guarantee has been effective). I really haven’t heard much from my guys that it’s been a problem,” Prandini said. “Of course, their main issue is ‘don’t give me my money back, get the work done.”
The Battle for MBG
The most recent iteration of making Fresno more business friendly started in 2017 when Lee Brand became mayor and Garry Bredefeld returned to the city council.
Both men pushed hard for their ideas of how to improve the planning department and increase approval time efficiency for building projects.
Bredefeld introduced his first version of a Money Back Guarantee program in 2018. He wanted to fix the problem of only 70% of projects being improved by the city’s planning department on time. He said the issue was a cultural problem. Others, like city employee union president Sam Frank pushed back on that idea. Frank said it was a manpower problem.
Brand countered with forming an advisory committee of business professionals known as Business Friendly Fresno 2.0! The mayor and Bredefeld clashed at a Fresno Chamber of Commerce event leading to insults and accusations.
GV Wire℠ asked Brand’s office for comment, but did not receive one by time of publication.
The council discussed Bredefeld’s proposal but took no action.
Bredefeld, along with then-councilman Steve Brandau agreed to wait for recommendations before moving forward. Nine months later, the council approved an amended proposal.
The ordinance included specific timelines based on the type of project, quarterly reports and a six-month trial period, starting May 2019.
According to city council minutes, it did not appear that any progress reports were made to council. The body is only getting to its six-month checkup now, nearly a year behind schedule.