HANFORD – There's only one person on the Hanford City Council with a comprehensive fiscal plan: Justin Mendes.

Mendes has released a five-page proposal for tightening the city's fiscal belt, unloading money-losing properties and making decisions to generate new revenue.

Mendes, a first-term councilman who won't be running again when his term expires in 2018, has repeatedly expressed frustration over the council's erratic decision making.

The council consists of Mendes, David Ayers, Martin Devine, Sue Sorensen and Francisco Ramirez.

Time and again, the council has rejected proposals to generate new revenue, much to Mendes' disappointment.

A good example is a transient occupancy tax increase proposed earlier this year.

The tax, which people pay when they stay in local motels, was to rise from 8 percent to 10 percent.

The plan was to put the extra revenue – estimated at approximately $245,000 a year - into downtown improvements.

Council members constantly talk about the need to improve downtown.

On June 7, 2016, and Feb. 7, 2017, council majorities indicated that they supported an increase.

But then, when it came up for a vote on March 7, Ayers, Devine and Sorensen voted to kill the proposal, which, if it had been passed, would still have had to be approved by Hanford voters in a mail-only election.

Mendes and Councilman Francisco Ramirez voted for the increase.

On Feb. 7, Mendes, Ramirez, Ayers and Devine all expressed support for the increase. Sorensen was absent.

Ayers and Devine couldn't be reached for comment at the time of the February vote.

Reached for comment Friday, Ayers said the increase "would have required [approval] by voters."

"To be honest, there just wasn't that much additional revenue to be gained," he said.

Sorensen said in an interview at the time that the mail-only election "wasn't worth the time and expense."

Sorensen said Friday that she favors a general sales tax increase instead of a transient occupancy tax increase.

"I would like to see a larger revenue pool," she said.

Mendes expressed frustration after the March 7 vote, saying he was "caught off guard."

Mendes continues to express frustration.

"I would call into question why they ran in the first place if [they] don't want to make the tough decisions," he said in an interview Friday.

Mendes' fiscal plan starts with the idea of selling city-owned downtown properties that lose money.

Those properties including the deteriorating Bastille building and the Old Courthouse building in Civic Park.

Neither are in good condition, although the Courthouse is in better shape and actually has tenants, unlike the empty Bastille.

Mendes wants the city to sell the old post office building currently occupied by Rabobank, use the money to fix up the Old Courthouse, sell the courthouse and funnel the proceeds into downtown improvements.

The Rabobank building is one of the few city properties that generates positive revenue.

Mendes said the sales agreements would include provisions requiring new owners to keep the buildings' historical appearance.

Devine couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Ayers said he's not in favor of the city selling any of the buildings. 

"They're part of our history," he said. "They're part of our culture."

Ramirez supports selling the Rabobank building.

Mendes also wants the city to get out from under the liability of owning the Bastille, the Carnegie building and having partial ownership of the county library building downtown.

In addition, Mendes wants the city to sell the vacant 18 acres next to Hidden Valley Park and use the money to build an indoor recreation facility next to The Plunge.

Mendes said in an interview that the approximately $2 million the city could get for selling the land might instead have to be spent on improving the condition of Hanford's parks.

The Council recently approved a budget amendment to spend additional money on the parks, but that decision only applies to the 2016-2018 budget (the city has a two-year budget cycle instead of the one-year budget used by the county).

Mendes has also expressed frustration over the council's approval of a general plan/zoning ordinance update in May that preserves restrictive zoning policies that prohibit certain types of businesses from locating in areas where they are most likely to succeed.

The council has banned most professional offices, including medical offices and optometrist services from locating in the Hanford Mall, the Target/Wal-Mart area and the Costco shopping center.

The ban prohibits a clinic that Adventist Health wanted to locate in the Costco center.

Furniture stores are also prohibited from going into the restricted areas.

The ban is designed to force these business to locate in the city's central core, including in downtown – in other words, precisely in those commercially unattractive areas where the businesses have already said they wouldn't go to anyway. 

The net effect of the ban is to discourage businesses from coming to Hanford.

The council adopted the ban despite pleas from Mall officials, Costco developers, real estate brokers and others for more flexibility.

Additional businesses generate more sales tax revenue, which gives the city money to do things.

Ayers and Devine, in particular, have defended the restrictive zoning.

Ayers said Friday that he doesn't think the bans have kept businesses from coming to Hanford.

Devine couldn't be reached for comment.

Mendes' said the council's decisions have left the city few options for generating new money, a fact he believes helps explain why the council recently lifted a citywide ban on commercial medical marijuana businesses.

"We've said no to [additional] sales tax, we've said no to selling [buildings], we're still restrictive in our zoning," Mendes said. "Developing medical marijuana is our last resort."

Mendes doesn't believe Hanford voters will approve any sale tax hikes until they first see the city get its "own fiscal house in order."

"The citizens [of Hanford] are essentially the bank," he said.

Ramirez said Friday that he hadn't read Mendes' proposal, but that he agrees with many of Mendes' key arguments.

"We wanted to lift all those zoning restrictions," he said.

Sorensen said said she read Mendes' plan and thought he "put a lot of thought into it."

Sorensen said she agreed with the idea of selling the Rabobank building, but wasn't sure about selling the Old Courthouse and other city-owned downtown buildings.

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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