First 5 Fresno County moves forward with new downtown building

The Fresno BeeNovember 21, 2013 

First 5 Fresno County is moving ahead on a new $15 million downtown headquarters building, even as a majority of Fresno County supervisors remain opposed to the controversial project.

The agency's commissioners awarded a $9.48 million contract to Durham Construction Co. The Clovis company was the lowest of six bidders.

In addition, commissioners took two related votes last week that were part of the overall project. The building's groundbreaking will likely be in January, First 5 officials say.

"I've always been very supportive of the project from Day One," said Commissioner Lisa Nichols, a six-year veteran on the nine-member commission.

The three votes taken, however, were not unanimous and to a certain extent reflected opposition to the project from Fresno County Supervisors Debbie Poochigian, Judy Case and Phil Larson. The three have repeatedly attacked the building as extravagant, unnecessary and a project that will take money from First 5 programs that benefit children.

"It was disappointing, I'll start with that," Poochigian said of the votes. "They basically decided to start reducing children's programs while building themselves a palace. The children of Fresno County are the big losers in this. They turned their backs on the children of Fresno County."

In last week's votes, Commissioner Diane Johnson, who is Poochigian's representative on the First 5 Commission, voted "no" on all three of the items. And Selma farmer Carol Chandler, newly appointed to the commission by Case, voted "no" on awarding the building contract.

Earlier this month, the three supervisors officially went on record as opposing the project.

More grilling is likely on the way because First 5 on Dec. 3 is scheduled to give a report to the supervisors on its finances and strategic plan.

First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency, funded by California's tobacco tax, that seeks to bolster health and education programs for families and their children from birth to age 5.

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.

Although construction is the bulk of the cost, the $15 million total for the building includes land purchase, architect charges, furniture purchases and fees for federal New Market Tax Credits, First 5 executive director Kendra Rogers has said.

Besides housing First 5's administrative offices, the new building will include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room. First 5 officials say it is part of retooling its mission as its budget shrinks.

Poochigian and Case, however, have used that shrinking budget to say that instead of constructing a new building, the money should be directed to children. First 5's budget has been shrinking as fewer Californians smoke — from $22 million in 2006 to around $11 million this year.

The agency's action last week came almost two months after it rejected all bids for the building when they were far above estimates.

First 5 had used a professional estimator to help put together a construction budget, which pegged the costs to be somewhere between $9.9 million and $10.3 million.

But in September, the lowest of six bids came in $2.6 million above that estimated range.

The agency then formed an ad hoc committee that scaled down the proposed building to get it within the original cost estimate. It was then rebid.

Durham Construction's bid was actually about $1.3 million below the new $10.7 million construction budget. The extra money was put into a contingency fund for any cost overruns. First 5 also might be able to add back some parts of building that were cut to lower the construction cost.

But Poochigian still said a quarter of the building will be "non-functional space." If it is built out at some point in the future, she said, it will take more money from children's programs.

Nichols, however, said the building will play a critical role in preparing those who depend on First 5 to operate in a world where the agency's funding is diminished — or one where it ceases to exist because its funding stream has run dry.

"It's going to be a great thing for kids," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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