Fresno City Hall image via wikipedia user Nightryder84
Written by Edward Smith
When Mayor Lee Brand’s term concludes at the end of 2020, so too may the effort of two past administrations to reform and streamline what some have called “the worst city in the state to work with.”
Mayor Brand ran his campaign with a promise to reform the city’s permitting process. And while Brand’s Business Friendly Fresno 2.0! committee didn’t actualize until 2018, it was built on the framework of his predecessor, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Business Friendly Fresno.
Out of the committee of architects, engineers, developers and public officials has come changes to the department that include at-risk development, private vendors to process permits when city staff get backed up and a money-back guarantee that promises project applicants a return on permit fees if an application is delayed. Since implementing that money-back guarantee, Brand said not a single project has been late. But a new administration in 2020 might mean a new approach at reforming the Development and Resource Management Department.
The problem, which administrations going back to at least Mayor Jim Patterson have tried to reform, has been getting projects approved in timely and predictable manner.
“I would say hands-down, the City of Fresno is the worst to work with,” one architect who would not put his name on record said of the more than two dozen cities across the state where he has done projects.
He said the problem in his experience lies in understaffing since the recession, cumbersome processes and a lack of communication among departments that cause projects to be needlessly delayed.
“When you go meet with some other cities, they don’t try to find obstacles to prevent you from building the project,” said the architect, who has worked throughout the state since 1982. “That’s the City of Clovis’ attitude, that’s the city of Visalia’s attitude.”
Jeff Roberts, entitlement manager for the Assemi Group, which includes Granville Homes, sits on Brand’s 19-person Business Friendly Fresno committee. He recognizes problems exist in planning and development departments.
“Over the last 30-something years of doing this, the city’s been a good entity to work with, but there are projects that can be very frustrating and seem to take too long,” Roberts said. He added that as cities grow larger, inefficiency grows as well.
In the month of October alone, Fresno processed 598 commercial permits, according to the Construction Monitor, which monitors municipal permitting. Clovis processed 345 and Visalia processed 250.
The architect, however, said that while bigger cities may be more rigorous in their review process, he knows what to expect.
It’s come to a point for him that for projects with the City of Fresno, he has to charge on an hourly basis rather than a fixed fee because of the unpredictability.
Mayors going back to Patterson have had some sort of plan to streamline the process.
Fresno mayoral candidate Andrew Janz wants to be able to leverage support from the city council and his administration to advance economic development efforts. He says his support from organized labor puts him in the “best position to implement changes, especially with respect to things we have seen labor push back against.”
Janz said current efforts are going in the right direction but “we haven’t done enough.”
“For me, it’s about making sure the folks that work at city hall understand that the taxpayers and the citizens and the people that live here in the community — they are basically our boss,” Janz said. “And so if the job’s not getting done right, or in a timely fashion then changes need to be made.”
Mayoral candidate Jerry Dyer said he first wants to familiarize himself with the details of how the City of Fresno works. He said he’s heard a “common theme” among developers that “when they go to other cities like Clovis, they roll out the red carpet, and when they come to Fresno, we roll out the red tape.”
“Whether that is a perception or reality, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s something that has to be addressed within the City of Fresno,” Dyer said.
He wants to be able to address obstacles employees may face and why the perception exists. He also wants to use an outside consultant to evaluate what other cities do.
Brand started Business Friendly Fresno from his time as a developer and from groundwork began during Swearengin’s campaign, he said.
It took a year before Brand could get his version running.
One hallmark that came out of BFF 2.0! was allowing third-party vendors to process applications when city staff are shorthanded.
Between 2016 and 2018, Fresno experienced “probably the strongest economy this region has seen, ever,” Brand said. But as the number of permit applications rose, the city lost 20 people of about 65 in the DARM department to the private sector. It took six months of negotiations with the Fresno City Employees Association to allow private outsourcing of certain jobs, something Kern and Fresno counties will do, as well as cities such as Lemoore.
Another reform has been allowing developers to prepare the ground for new construction as soon as plans are submitted, before they are approved — known as at-risk development. If the city changes submittals or turns down the job, the developer assumes the risk.
“It’s very helpful to get a jump on actual construction,” Roberts said. “The developers taking the risk anyway, why not let them take the risk a little early?”
Throughout the BFF 2.0! committees, the city also rolled out a website to track and submit plans from small residential requests to multi-acre development proposals. The FAASTER website, or Fresno’s Accelerated Application System to Track Electronic Review, allows plan-checkers to send live corrections.
Dealing with other problems can take an administrator’s attention away from the task at hand, Brand said. And as mayors change, so does the direction of reform.
Brand said the next mayor will “have to keep the pedal to the medal.”
“If you ease up,” Brand said, “It’s human nature, people will start to fall into patterns.”