For much of the past year, Fresno County’s assessor-recorder has had his eye on a downtown Fresno building where he wanted to move the Recorder’s Office.
But by the time the issue was finally scheduled to come before Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday, Assessor-Recorder Paul Dictos had decided to scrap his plans for moving out of the Fresno County Hall of Records to the building at 1649 Van Ness Ave.
He’s now going back to the drawing board.
Dictos had no problem with the building’s 17,400 square feet, nearly doubling the 9,000 square feet the Recorder’s Office now occupies. Built in 1975, the Van Ness Avenue building was most recently the site of the investigative branch of the Internal Revenue Service, which moved to other downtown Fresno offices last year.
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The price of just under $2.4 million was also reasonable, and the single-story building offered free parking. The building’s additional space also allowed for an area for historical documents now in warehouse storage.
Those attributes alone excited Dictos, who says employees often hear complaints about parking tickets and elevator malfunctions, forcing customers to climb stairs to the third floor.
The Recorder’s Office has 27 employees. They oversee property records and birth, marriage and death certificates. The office probably has as many customers – about 300 per day – as any office in the Hall of Records. Other than during tax bill season in April and December, Dictos estimates that 75 percent of the customers entering the Tulare and M streets building visit the Recorder’s Office.
In February, he said, improvements to meet the county’s specifications would likely cost $1 million or more, on top of the sales price.
But those improvements are now the sticking point.
I’m an accountant and I know numbers. This was going out of control.
Paul Dictos, Fresno County assessor-recorder
Costs to adapt the building’s design to the Recorder’s Office’s needs were $4.35 million, almost double the purchase price, pushing the project’s cost to nearly $7 million, he said.
Even though all the money came from fees paid for his department’s services and was in his office’s reserve funds, Dictos said he was squeamish about using that much money.
“I’m an accountant and I know numbers,” Dictos said. “This was going out of control.”
Now, he’s convinced that he can pay less for a new building, one built to suit his office’s unique needs.
“It’s dead now,” he said. “We will come up with a new search.”
That amount also didn’t factor in changes to the project that might be necessary once work got underway.
“Any cost overruns would make it even more cost prohibitive,” he said.
It’s not clear whether supervisors would have supported the project if it had remained on last week’s board agenda.
Supervisor Brian Pacheco said he was prepared to listen with an open mind. He recognized the high cost for improvements but said the project had no net cost to the county.
“If he could have offered a convincing argument on how the benefits outweigh the costs, I could have supported it,” he said. “From my experience in the private sector it’s generally more expensive to remodel than to build from scratch.”
By pulling the project back, Pacheco said, Dictos demonstrated a willingness to be flexible and recognize when costs would have climbed too high, no matter how much he liked the building.
But Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said she would not have supported the proposed improvement costs. She said she had questions prepared before the item was removed from the agenda, and “I believe it would have been a very entertaining discussion.”
She said the lower improvement costs Dictos had provided to supervisors earlier obviously weren’t penciling out.
I believe it would have been a very entertaining discussion.
Debbie Poochigian, Fresno County supervisor
“I imagine when the costs for improvements came in at four times his projections he had second thoughts,” she said. “If we had moved forward with it, it would have been a very poor deal for the taxpayers for Fresno County.”
In other discussion, supervisors talked in closed session last week about acquiring properties for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office in downtown and a new Fresno County Sheriff’s Office substation near Belmont and Temperance avenues. No action was taken.
“We’re kind of moving slow on these, but we’re moving ahead,” Board Chairman Buddy Mendes said. “We have to be able to make a deal we can live with and afford.”