Food fight

Sacramento Food Bank Services accuses the county of waffling over past agreements

Father Dan Madigan isn’t begging from the county; he just wants consideration.

Father Dan Madigan isn’t begging from the county; he just wants consideration.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Supporters of Sacramento Food Bank Services (SFBS) who expected FatherDan Madigan’s usual lighthearted spiritual message were a bit surprised when they opened the organization’s December newsletter. This time, the priest who founded the food bank 27 years ago was asking his friends and supporters to help him right “a great wrong,” one that goes back to the closing of McClellan Air Force Base.

The great wrong to which Madigan was referring is the county’s failure to provide the space awarded to SFBS under the federal government’s Base Closure Community Redevelopment and Homeless Assistance Act of 1994. This law requires that local governments allot a portion of closed bases to local agencies that provide services to the homeless, a requirement that must be met before any private redevelopment may proceed.

In 1997, SFBS was one of three organizations—the others were Sacramento Cottage Housing Inc. (SCHI) and the Wind Youth Center—that were awarded space at the former base to use in the service of the local homeless populations. However, as detailed in an SN&R article at the time of the base’s closure [“Battle for the Base”; SN&R News; July 26, 2001], there were problems with the process from the beginning.

In the case of SCHI, which originally had been awarded a hotel and a pizzeria on the property, a settlement was achieved with the county in November 2001 that allowed SCHI to go forward with its plans for Serna Village. Wind Youth Center received a settlement of $160,000 in February 2002, in lieu of the two duplexes at McClellan that it had been awarded.

But settlement has eluded SFBS. Two-and-a-half years after the formal base closing, the food bank has yet to receive either the property awarded to it in the closure agreement—a 50,000-square-foot warehouse—or any equivalent settlement, and SFBS’s patience is wearing thin regarding what Madigan’s December letter calls “a blatant injustice.”

The situation is, of course, more complicated than it might seem at first glance. According to Paul Hahn, director of the Sacramento County Department of Economic Development, who was one of the coordinators of the redevelopment plan for McClellan, “the county is ready to settle at any time.” But what the county considers a reasonable settlement and what SFBS feels is due it are, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars apart.

The dispute has its roots in an event over which neither the county nor the food bank had any control. The original warehouse property awarded to SFBS in the closure plan was to be used for food-bank training programs for the homeless. But before the base was turned over to the county, the Air Force determined that the warehouse had been contaminated with toxic substances and razed it. No one at the food bank actually saw the building.

The agreement between the county and the food bank, in addition to the original grant, allowed for the substitution of a “substantially equivalent” property, either at McClellan or at an alternate site. It also allowed for “substantially equivalent” funding or for some other mutually agreed-upon resolution. Much of the current impasse is a disagreement as to what constitutes “substantially equivalent” property or funding.

The county, said Hahn, has determined that the 50,000 square feet of warehouse space is worth $100,000, which is the amount of cash offered to SFBS. “We think we’re offering what it’s worth,” said Hahn. Given that there’s an abundance of warehouse space at McClellan, the county also is willing to provide an equivalent amount of warehouse space at the base if that will satisfy SFBS. “We have it,” said Hahn. “We’ve cut it out, and it’s ready to roll.”

But SFBS Executive Director Peter Berghuis says that all the sites SFBS has been shown have been inappropriate for one reason or another. The first site that the county offered, for instance, was “a stone monster,” according to Berghuis, with no utilities or bathrooms. SFBS turned down the building because repairing it to a condition in which it could be used by the food bank would cost at least half a million dollars. “It really wasn’t appropriate,” he said.

SFBS was shown other sites by the private broker who worked with the county on the base’s closure. “They showed us a few buildings that were, I would have to say, worth more” than the first alternative offered, Berghuis said.

“They put around a $400,000 price tag on a 50,000-square-foot building,” he explained, “and the buildings they showed us ranged from $350,000 to around $700,000. Mind you, we would have to pay the difference plus improve the building for these other sites.”

The cost involved was simply too prohibitive for the food bank, especially considering that it expected to receive the warehouse in a functional state. And, considering that the food bank was supposed to have the use of the building over a very long term, Berghuis discounts the county’s offer of a $100,000 cash settlement as inadequate.

He offers up the rationale that a lease on 50,000 square feet is worth at least a dollar per foot per year. “That’s $50,000 a year,” he said. Considering the food bank’s assumed term of use, say three or four decades, “it’s insane to say that it’s only worth $100,000,” he said. Furthermore, because the original building was destroyed, Berghuis feels that it’s impossible to say it was worth only the figure put forward by the county.

Hahn pointed out that “it’s not the county’s fault that the Air Force knocked down the warehouse, and it’s not the food bank’s fault.” But he noted that there’s a surplus of warehouse space at the former base, which lowers the market value of the space granted to SFBS.

What SFBS really needs is a facility in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood, where it has been running a food locker for a number of years from what Berghuis described as a “dilapidated, double-wide trailer.”

“We provide groceries for 12,000 people a month from that location,” he said, “and we’d like to build a better building and provide that area with better social services.” He envisions a facility similar to SFBS’s flagship office in Oak Park, which would include such programs as the organization’s Community Learning Center, Mother-Baby Program and Senior Bridge Builders.

Because of the food bank’s interest in improving and expanding its service to Del Paso Heights, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA), a joint city-county agency, stepped in to see if it could resolve the situation by aiding in locating a suitable site in the neighborhood.

Anne Moore, SHRA’s executive director, said her organization was just trying to help. However, the only site that the food bank is interested in, a large lot next to the Robertson Community Center at Norwood and Hayes avenues and directly across the street from SFBS’s current trailer, is not an appropriate site, according to Moore.

The site is not owned by the county, but was purchased by SHRA with city redevelopment funds. The food bank’s plan would not meet SHRA’s redevelopment criteria of “highest and best use” for that particular plot, which is for retail use. Additionally, “the city and SHRA have no obligation to meet the terms of the McClellan agreement,” Moore said, “because it is the responsibility of the county.”

From Madigan’s point of view, the county is waffling on more than just the McClellan deal. According to him, when Mather Air Force Base was closed in 1993, the food bank was awarded the base commissary under the same federal law that governed the McClellan closure. But he was asked by the county to turn over the food bank’s interest in the commissary so the county could offer it for development, and he did so.

Here’s where the story gets difficult. Madigan said he was assured at the time that one day, “when and if SFBS would approach the county for help, they would be regarded not as beggars or bankers, but as dear friends deserving of recompense.”

The key, according to the food bank’s Berghuis, is that “the discussion at the time said that, at a future date, we need to make it right with Sacramento Food Bank Services. So, when this thing came up, and they’re jockeying around with us about this, it’s disappointing.”

Hahn described Madigan’s perception of a promise of special consideration as “an extremely different view from the county’s about that meeting.” And, about the food bank’s interest in pursuing a usable site in North Sacramento, he said, “It’s not the county’s area, but we’re willing to help.”

Representatives of the food bank; the county’s Department of Economic Development, including Hahn; and SHRA are scheduled to meet next week to try to hash out a settlement. With this alphabet soup of county agencies insisting that they’re willing to help, it’s a bit puzzling that the situation hasn’t been resolved yet. Currently, the county’s also having problems with its obligations to other homeless programs [see “Homeless agency seeks cutback pardon,” SN&R News, February 5].

“We understand that the county is currently cash-strapped,” said Berghuis. “That’s fine. So, give us some land, with the costs of permits and utilities, and we’ll do the rest. I don’t think we’re being unreasonable.” But he sees an underlying problem with the way the county has approached the entire situation.

“Here’s our opinion: They’re all good people,” he said, referring to county and SHRA officials. “But there’s just no mechanism that can kind of gel and make this happen. We need some leadership.” To that end, Berghuis is asking supporters of the food bank to contact the county supervisors and urge them to step in. “We don’t want to alienate all our friends at the county,” he said. “We’d like for them to just do something.”