Leave it to the feds to turn what are perhaps the Fresno City Council’s staunchest liberal and staunchest conservative into allies.
What is the catalyst? The utter complexity of Big Government.
The issue at hand was a couple of consulting contracts that went before the council on Sept. 20.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to send about $11 million to City Hall this fiscal year for what are called “community planning and development” programs.
In this arena you’ve got the Community Development Block Grant program, the Emergency Solutions Grant program, the HOME Partnership Program and the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program.
It’s a substantial amount of money, though local activists would argue with considerable justification that it’s not nearly enough. It’s money that comes to City Hall every year. It’s money designed to help Fresno’s least fortunate residents in a variety of targeted ways.
And it’s money that comes with a ton of spending rules. City halls anywhere break or bend those rules at their peril. Fresno City Hall, with its years of documented woe at properly administering CDBG money, knows this only too well.
Fresno’s $11 million goes into the Housing & Community Development division of the Development and Resource Management Department. That’s a mouthful, and from a bureaucratic perspective it certainly sounds impressive. Fresnans would understandably want (and expect) an experienced and fully staffed team of dedicated public servants on the City Hall payroll making sure the money is spent wisely, on time, and to maximum benefit to the poor.
But such a team apparently doesn’t exist.
“Due to several factors,” said a staff report to the council, “including pending retirements, it is anticipated that the Housing Division will be operating at less than 30% staffing in the coming weeks.”
As to a solution, the report says DARM recommends “the retention of a consultant with expertise and experience in successfully administering HUD programs.” The report goes on to promise that “the remaining staff and the proposed agreements will provide the City with the requisite tools to meet its administrative obligations for each of the respective HUD programs.”
In the end, the council on a 6-0 vote (Oliver Baines absent) approved separate contracts with Michael Baker International and Usona Development totaling $417,510. The cavalry is arriving just in the nick of time.
But what has happened to Fresno’s Housing Division? To keep with the military metaphor, a fighting unit operating at less than 30% of budgeted staffing is hardly a fighting unit at all. That kind of depletion seemingly calls for a complete reorganization.
And it’s here that Council President Esmeralda Soria (the liberal) and Council Member Garry Bredefeld (the conservative) come into the picture.
Soria on Sept. 20 asked DARM Assistant Director Kelli Furtado to come to the public microphone and briefly explain what was going on.
“We’ve been having some capacity issues,” Furtado said. She added that the combining of consultants and staff “is a very balanced approach.”
Soria responded by thanking Furtado for meeting with her the previous day to discuss the issue. Soria was careful as she made her point.
“One of my main concerns is we’re not building the capacity within our staff,” Soria said. “I know that has resulted in some delays in terms of the work product and meeting our goals. I understand the need for the consultants after our conversation. But I just want to make sure that there’s still a commitment to continue to build the capacity rather than supplanting staff.”
Looking at City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter, Soria said, “I would like to see a commitment from you guys that these consultants will actually train to build that capacity so that we may not have to rely as much on the consultants but rather have a well-equipped staff that can produce the work.”
Soria asked if Quan-Schecter had any thoughts.
Quan-Schecter responded: “We do envision that staff will be working hand-in-hand with the consultants and that it will be a learning process and our staff will benefit from the expertise of these consultants. That is our intent.”
Soria was about to call for a vote when Bredefeld asked to speak.
“I just want to say that I concur with all of your comments,” Bredefeld said to Soria. “I think they are right on. We do need consultants at times, but those consultants ought to be used to train our staff so that we can save ultimately on not needing consultants.“
To have Bredefeld firmly on her side seemed to embolden Soria. Her final comments before the vote were a warning to the administration of Mayor Lee Brand.
“I’m very cautious about this item,” Soria said. “I’m going to be supportive of it today because I know that we are behind and we need to catch up. I do not want to jeopardize any of the potential dollars that we could receive. But I am very serious in my comments. Six months from now maybe give us a report as to how the consultants are working. I would like to hear how they’re training our staff to build that capacity and that we’re actually serious about filling those positions. I’d also like to see six months from now what have we done to promote the positions that are vacant and how are we doing the proper outreach to attract quality staff. “
Such a warning may not be entirely fair to the Administration. I’m guessing it’s not easy to build a Housing Division staff with deep understanding of the ever-changing nature of HUD programs, then retain the core of that staff for 20 or 30 years. But political life isn’t fair.
Soria and Bredefeld will want answers at the end of March.