Fresno County Supervisors on Tuesday devoted an entire hour to beating up First 5 Fresno County in what has become an almost regular ritual at recent board meetings.
This time, however, the board finally touched on an issue that's hung in the air for months, but has never been directly discussed -- bringing the now-independent public agency under direct county control.
Supervisor Judy Case's motion directs staff to consider both the pros and cons of such a major move. The discussion will begin at next week's meeting.
It remains clear that Case and fellow Supervisors Debbie Poochigian and Phil Larson don't like First 5's current direction, with the focus of their ire being the agency's proposed $15 million downtown headquarters, which Poochigian on Tuesday called a "Taj Mahal" and a "fancy palace."
The supervisors at their next meeting will not only begin discussions on the merits of taking over First 5, but also look at forcing Supervisors' Chair Henry R. Perea -- the board's representative on the First 5 Commission -- to vote against the building. County Counsel Kevin Briggs said county policy permits the board to take such action.
Perea supports the building and First 5's overall direction, but during the meeting said he would honor the will of the board's majority and vote against the project -- if it directed him to do so in an official motion.
In a text message after the meeting, however, Perea said he's going to look further into the matter.
"I believe the policy may not be legal and I will seek another legal opinion," he wrote. "I believe the board cannot direct my vote."
Case and Poochigian even touched on the idea of replacing Perea as the board's representative on the First 5 Commission, though the agency's bylaws seem to indicate that would require a vote of four of the five supervisors.
For good measure, the supervisors also plan next Tuesday to take an official vote on their opposition to the First 5 building, even though that has been made more than clear as Case, Poochigian and Larson have verbally pummeled First 5 in the past four board meetings.
"I don't know what else can be said on this topic," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said. "This is the fifth time we are talking about this subject matter. I'm wondering if we've even spent this much time on our county budget."
Though the issue has been simmering for awhile, Case, Poochigian and Larson really began putting heat on First 5 in September, just days before a key vote by First 5 Fresno County on constructing a new downtown headquarters.
The building will be built on First 5-owned property that is currently a parking lot along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library. It will include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room in addition to First 5's administrative offices.
First 5 commissioners delayed a plan to award a construction contract for the building after the lowest of six bids for the project came in $2.6 million above the estimated range of $9.9 million and $10.3 million.
Commissioners instead rejected all bids for the building. An ad hoc committee has since scaled down the proposed building to get it within the original estimate. It is now being rebid.
Case, Larson and Poochigian have continually criticized the project as opulent, expensive, and not in the best interests of children, especially when poverty is rampant in wide rural swaths of the county, as well as urban parts of Fresno.
First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children from birth to age 5 and their families. It's funded by California's tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.
Both Poochigian and Case have said, however, that the agency's budget has been shrinking as fewer Californians smoke. In 2006, Poochigian has said, the budget was $22 million. As the agency's budget shrinks, Poochigian and Case say every dollar should be directed to children.
"I know we have not received any adequate answers" from First 5, Poochigian said Tuesday.
But Perea and Borgeas both said the agency has been responsive to questions from supervisors.
Perea on Tuesday again defended the project, and said the building has been stripped of any opulence. He and other First 5 supporters have said the downtown building is part of an effort by the agency to retool and refocus its mission as revenues decline.
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