First 5 Fresno County commissioners on Friday rejected all bids for building the organization's new headquarters after they came in far above estimates.
Instead, the organization decided to form an ad hoc committee to work on scaling down the proposed building to get it within the original cost estimate -- and then rebid it.
The commission's decision on the proposed $15 million project came just days after a majority of the Fresno County supervisors questioned the need for the proposed downtown Fresno building, which will also include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room as well as First 5's administrative offices.
First 5 had used a professional cost estimator to help put together a construction budget, which pegged the costs to be somewhere between $9.9 million to $10.3 million.
But of the six bids submitted, the lowest bid came in $2.6 million above that estimated range.
The new structure is to be built on First 5-owned property along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library. It is currently a parking lot.
Though construction is the bulk of the cost, the $15 million total includes land purchase, architect charges, furniture purchases and fees for federal New Market Tax Credits, First 5 executive director Kendra Rogers said.
Federal New Markets Tax Credits provide tax incentives to private investors who provide capital to business and development projects in low-income communities.
First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children ages birth to 5 and their families. It's funded by California's tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.
Earlier this week, Supervisors Debbie Poochigian and Phil Larson had sought, at the least, a delay in Friday's vote. Rogers, however, said the vote had to go forward because of deadlines related to the New Market tax credits. That date was Sept. 30.
But Rogers said the higher-than-expected construction bids for the building forced the agency to see if the deadline could be pushed back. The two New Market Tax Credit investor groups working with First 5 agreed to extend the deadline by three months, from Sept. 30 to Dec. 30.
"This is a little bit of a setback," Rogers said.
Still, at the latest, shovels should be in the ground by January, she said.
A second option for commissioners was to seek additional financing options to try and reach the amount of the lowest construction bid. But First 5 staff recommended against that idea, and no commissioner championed it.
The decision to put together a proposal that is within the original construction cost estimates means cutting out some things, but Rogers said the goal is still to keep the heart of the project intact.
It still didn't win over new Commissioner Diane Johnson, who is Poochigian's appointment to the panel.
Though Johnson did not cast any "no" votes on Friday, she said the county's financial situation and its high unemployment rate show that the time isn't right for the project.
"It's a want, not a need," she said.
But with it going forward, Johnson said the executive bathroom and $160,000 fountain in front could easily be cut to save money.
"Obviously there's room to cut quite a bit," Johnson said.
Her comments echoed those made Tuesday by Poochigian and Larson, who charged that First 5 was building a downtown palace at the expense of needy Fresno County children.
On Friday, Supervisor Judy Case came to the First 5 meeting, and also spoke in opposition to the project. With the huge needs in the county, she asked, was the downtown building the best use of money?
But others defended the plan, including Commissioner Lisa Nichols.
"I think our children are worth this investment," she said.
Former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, also a supporter of the project, added: "Let's not let the politics get in front of the good, and there's a whole lot of politics."
Rogers, who is a potential 2016 challenger to Poochigian, also said that no money for the downtown building has come at the expense of any First 5 programs.
"We have never cut services to children," she said. "This facility would not result in any cuts in contracts to kids."
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