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Talking Points Memo: The Latest from City Hall

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Five quick thoughts on one of my favorite topics at Fresno City Hall – code enforcement.

1.) The appeal hearing for Chris Henry, owner of Summerset Village apartments, is slated to begin Sept. 26 in the Council Chamber.

Henry has been fined $290,000 for 1,450 alleged code violations.

I must admit I don’t understand the $290,000 figure — $200 for each of the violations. I was under the impression that City Hall in these code-enforcement situations also insists on recovering city costs.

The idea is that the taxpayer shouldn’t have to foot the bill for certain expenses incurred when bringing “slumlords” to justice.

Think back to the drama of November-December 2015. A small army of city officials descended on Summerset for what seemed like weeks on end.

Why didn’t City Hall double that $290,000 proposed bite out of Henry’s wallet?

2.) City Hall has two independent administrative hearing officers: Ed Johnson and Michael Flores.

According to CaliforniaBids.com, the city is looking for what may turn out to be a new batch of hearing officers. The website says Fresno will accept applications to be a hearing officer until 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15.

The website uses the plural – “Administrative hearing officers” – in the notice. But the notice doesn’t say whether it’s Johnson’s job, Flores’ job or both jobs that’s in play. Or maybe the city plans to expand the roster of hearing officers to three or more.

I chatted with Johnson and Flores on Thursday. They didn’t know, either.

Johnson’s contract runs through October. Flores’ deal is good until early 2017.

3.) There’s definitely plenty to keep Johnson and Flores busy.

Johnson spent two days this week with assessment hearings. This chore comes his way every three months or so.

The Code Enforcement Division fines property owners for violations. Often times, the city incurs abatement costs. Some property owners don’t pay up. The city adds the debt to the owners’ property tax bill.

The final step in this procedure is Johnson’s assessment hearings, where the owner gets one last chance to beef about the bill.

Johnson on Thursday gave me a list of the owners being assessed and the addresses of their properties. By my rough count, there are about 500 properties.

The list makes for fascinating reading.

For example, the house at 1450 N. Archie Ave. (near Cedar and McKinley avenues) was hit with a bill of $3,565.05. The owner is Brian Rosene.

If the address and owner’s name sound familiar, well, they should. Rosene also owned the house at 1444 N. Archie. This house is now gone, destroyed in an early-morning fire in December 2014.

Five people died in the fire. They had apparently broken into the vacant house.

Then there’s the house at 2117 E. Cambridge Avenue, a bit north of Fresno City College’s Euless Park. This building is owned by Steven DeWayne Pearson, according to the list.

Pearson had a bill of $109,592.05, almost all of it fines.

I found 2680 N. Miami Ave. on the list. That’s site of the recycling business owned by Michael and Vincenza Occhionero that I wrote about some months ago. City Hall and the Occhionero family have been fighting over code issues for years.

The assessment on Johnson’s list: $47,325.64, almost all of it abatement costs.

Finally, there were eight separate bills totaling about $4,200 for eight addresses in the 4000 block of N. Cedar Avenue. The owner is Harpains Meadow LP.

We’re talking about the site of the former Harpain’s Dairy – now home to Granite Park.

4.) The total bill on Johnson’s list was nearly $2.5 million. How much the city actually collects is another question.

Someone who owes $200 or $300 will probably fork over the cash with his property taxes. But who’s going to pay $100,000-plus in fines/abatements costs to City Hall on a property that’s probably worth far less and most likely shoulders debts to other taxing agencies?

Such a property is almost surely headed to a public auction. I’m guessing City Hall isn’t first in line to get the money.

5.) Finally, Johnson on Thursday told me that he pulled about 25 properties from the assessment list before making a decision. Those properties involve blight cases. Each of the assessments was $10,000 or higher, he said.

Johnson said he pulled the properties for further review because the fines may be excessive, thus triggering constitutional issues.

Further review in this situation means a full-blown hearing on each property. Flores said he will help Johnson with the workload.

Big fines is a key component in City Hall’s enforcement effort to bring rental housing up to code. Has the city gone overboard?

In theory, all 25 or so hearings belong solely to Johnson. Flores, however, volunteered to take half the burden.

That suggests that Flores as well as Johnson has concerns with how the city computes blight fines.

City Hall continues to struggle to get it right in its fight against slumlords.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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