Grand Jury: Fresno Co. doesn’t know know how much land it owns, purchased ‘Do-Nothing Farm’

A Grand Jury report paints the County of Fresno as a hefty landowner with limited control an knowledge of its sprawling portfolio and a spate of decisions that cost taxpayers millions.

The County of Fresno isn’t exactly sure how much land it actually owns.

Last week the Fresno County Civil Grand Jury released its second report that painted a grim picture of the county’s management of a sprawling, billion-dollar portfolio of real estate capped by a series of poor financial decisions that have cost taxpayers millions over a 20-year run. 


The backstory: The investigation into Fresno County’s land ownership and real estate practices was sparked by a TikTok video from the county trying to recruit for its Internal Security Services. 

  • The video noted that the county is responsible for over 500 buildings and has 26,000 annual calls for services – the most notable of which being the derelict University Medical Center campus in southeast Fresno. 

The big picture: Fresno County’s internal records have a discrepancy into how much property the county actually owns. 

  • According to the Grand Jury, the list of insured properties provided by the County Administrative Office had 265 properties worth $1.4 billion. 
  • But that was only a little over half of the properties that the Internal Services Department has on its list, totalling 406. 
  • Meanwhile, Fresno County Assessor’s Office also had a list of 406 properties owned by the county, but the discrepancies continue from there. 
  • The Internal Services Department had 39 properties that were not listed on the Assessor’s list, and likewise the Assessor’s list also had 39 properties that were not on the Internal Services Department list. 
  • “Taken together the lists of real estate provided to the Grand Jury were informal, closely held, and inconsistent,” the Grand Jury report reads. “They included outdated data, and raised questions as to the history of the property and why the property was even in the county’s inventory.” 
  • Grand Jurors fumed that oversight of the $1.4 billion real estate portfolio is vested in a single, unnamed person.

Zoom in: Fresno County’s property mismanagement is highlighted by the inaccuracies in the real estate data that it provided to the Grand Jury. 

  • A parcel listed as a vacant lot on the Internal Services Department list is the site of the Tranquility Branch Library, which was built over a decade ago. The Laton Branch Library, which has been part of the county since 1910, sits in a 1,596 square-foot historical building that is not listed on the county’s owned or leased properties. 

UMC issues: The Grand Jury also found issues with how Fresno County has managed the former University Medical Center campus. The main hospital buildings were abandoned in 2007, with the main hospital towers remaining empty nearly two decades later. 

  • The Grand Jury found that the county could have demolished the hospital buildings for $6 to $8 million in 2007. 
  • Instead, the county decided to keep the buildings intact and has spent over $1 million annually in maintenance, totalling over $16 million since 2007. 
  • The Fresno County Board of Supervisors have twice in recent years sought to off-load the property, with one aborted sale becoming the subject of a criminal case against the Chief of Staff to Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero that was ultimately prosecuted by the Fresno County District Attorney.
  • After that sale, to a local, largely-unknown developer, was dropped, Fresno County Supervisors approved a $6 million bid to purchase it by developer Sevak Khatchadourian.

Vacant farmland: Another major property issue plaguing the county is 90 acres on DeWolfe Ave. near Selma that was purchased in 2007 using bond funding from the 1990s-era Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement for a proposed Ag center. 

  • Fresno County purchased the property for $4.6 million, pricing the property at $50,000 per acre. 
  • But Tobacco Securitization Funds are restricted to non-commercial use, which undermined the project’s feasibility from the outset. 
  • While the property’s best use was later determined to be agricultural, it was appraised for $1.5 million in total – or 32 percent of the price the county paid for it.
  • Restrictions on Tobacco Securitization Funds also keep it from being leased for farming. 
  • “The Grand Jury could not determine whether the deal was the result of incompetence or malfeasance or other factors,” the report reads. “Communications between departments is a likely factor here, as is the complexity of the County’s many funding sources. Sixteen years later one of the largest Fresno County properties remains vacant and unused.” 

What we’re watching: The Grand Jury recommended that the county develop a deliberate strategy for institutional change in how real estate is viewed, robust enough to effect lasting change. That would start with creating a real estate/property strategic plan. 

  • The Grand Jury also recommended that the county review all county owned real estate so that an accurate and complete database is established. 
  • Multiple sources told The Sun that the County’s Internal Services Department Director Robert Bash exited his position a week before the Grand Jury report was released.

Fresno County’s response: Fresno County responded in a statement last week saying that the Board of Supervisors had inherited the issues from prior administrations and has been actively addressing them. 

  • The county also said that more progress has been made on county facilities in the last five years than in the last 25 years combined, pointing to work down on the Rowell Building, the Animal Services facility, the Recorder’s Building, the new Sheriff Substation and the consolidation of the Department of Social Services to the Clovis campus. 
  • The county said it has plans and active work to either surplus or use the University Medical Center Campus, the Selma land and others mentioned in the report.
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