The fountain outside the county courthouse, once a symbol of pride and elegance in downtown Fresno, has become more a liability for the county. It's old and the pump doesn't always work.
But just as county officials were looking to shut it down, new hope for saving the fountain has emerged.
A recently deceased Clovis man has left an unexpected gift of nearly $800,000 to the county. While not much is known about the benefactor, Ernest Lawrence who died at 71, it is known that he wanted his small fortune to be spent on parks -- and park amenities, such as fountains.
"I don't know why he did that. He's never expressed anything to me about parks," said Michelle Sloan, the county case manager who oversaw Lawrence when his health forced him to turn to the county for assistance years ago.
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Sloan would not elaborate on Lawrence's health issues, per county policy, but county officials said he had no wife, no children and no close friends to turn to before he died last year.
Today, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to decide what to do with Lawrence's donation. Fixing the courthouse fountain is a top consideration.
"I think that's a legitimate use for his money," said Supervisor Susan Anderson, who praised Lawrence for the endowment. "The fountain's been there for a long time and we need to maintain it. It creates pride in the community."
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian expressed similar delight in the donation and using part of it for the fountain.
"It's very generous of him," she said. "I'm not aware of anybody who has made a contribution of this amount of money to the county before.
"I want to make sure we use it in a way that's respectful."
County park managers are thrilled with the idea of putting a portion of the money toward the fountain -- at least $25,000 is needed, they said. Otherwise, they added, it's in the county's best interest to close the fountain.
"The cost of renovating this so we can safely operate it is increasing, and we just don't have the funding in our operational budget to keep it going," said Alan Weaver, director of the county Public Works and Planning Department, which oversees parks.
County parks have been among the areas hardest hit by the economic downturn. Sports fields, picnic areas and campgrounds have not been kept up, and Weaver said to expect more of that if his department is forced to sink additional money into the fountain.
In April, park managers proposed closing the courthouse fountain as well as two other fountains at the Fresno County Plaza Building, formerly the Del Webb Building.
But county supervisors asked the department to take another look at its budget and try to come up with money to keep the water flowing.
On Monday, the courthouse fountain still was running. But park managers said the $7,300 pump is operating on a temporary fix and will give out soon.
Additionally, $10,000 is needed for plumbing, electrical and structural repairs, they said. And that's on top of ongoing maintenance expenses, which have grown as some in the homeless community have chosen to use the fountain for reasons never intended.
"We're creating bathtubs and laundry facilities for the folks out there," said the county's top manager, John Navarrette, explaining that it's hard to justify throwing more county dollars at cleaning and fixing the aging landmark.
Beyond the necessary fixes, some county officials have suggested going a step further and redesigning the pool around the fountain so that it becomes more difficult for people to get into.
The fountain originally was designed in 1965 by Carol Barnes and called "The Earth is a Sculpture." The contemporary design is a metaphor for growth and harvest, according to the Fresno County Office of Tourism.
If the inheritance can be tapped, park managers expect the fountain to be retrofitted with a bronze plaque in the memory of Lawrence and his parents, Lloyd and Mildred. Lawrence wanted his parents, who gave their assets to him, to be honored, too.
Sloan, the county case manager, described Lawrence as an intelligent man with an impeccable memory.
"He would often throw out stats for the NFL," said Sloan, who would be quizzed by Lawrence on sports trivia. "I'd say, 'Ernie, I don't remember who won the Super Bowl four years ago and the score.' "
The remainder of Lawrence's inheritance, after paying for the fountain, could be put toward other park projects or into a trust and spent later, county officials said.
"If we had a trust fund for parks, maybe other people might contribute to it," Anderson said. "This could provide our parks the money they need to operate into the future."