Although the City of Springfield has every intention of honoring its contract with the Sarpy County Building Department, it is exploring alternatives to avoid renewing it.
The Springfield City Council is investigating the costs and advantages of creating a building inspection department for the city, following concerns about how much Sarpy County charges to inspect remodeling, expansions, home repairs and other construction work and how long it takes the county to attend to these inspections.
The idea of an independent inspection department was first raised last September, when the county increased building permit fees and required Springfield to charge an equal or greater amount in order to continue contracting with the county for building inspections. At the time, Councilman Dan Craney said he would like to see the city offer more competitive building permit rates to attract more businesses and homes, but he didn’t want the city to turn down a contract with the county unless there was another inspector lined up, as that could leave the city without any inspection services.
Councilman Chad Nolte was also vehemently opposed to the fee raises and said he felt the city was “getting hammered” on building fees.
“I’m sick of the county,” he said at the time. “We can get our own inspectors.”
Mayor Mike Dill said he didn’t think the city had enough need for its own inspector, except on an as-needed basis. City Clerk Kathleen Gottsch said the city would need to find someone who was familiar with all the codes. She added that the contract with the county could be amended at any time, but the city could not go any lower on the rates and stay in the contract. At present, Springfield pays the county half of the building permit cost for projects the county inspects.
The council ultimately passed the fee schedule and the contract with the county at its Oct. 1 meeting, on a 3-1 vote that saw Nolte remaining opposed.
“These prices are not right,” he said before the vote. “Nobody holds a gun to my head.”
Craney said agreeing to the contract for another year gave the city a year to look at its options, and he reported at the council’s Nov. 5 meeting that he was still “following the inspector trail.”
“We have qualified people here in Springfield,” he said. “We may not need Sarpy County.”
The issue went dormant for a while, reappearing at the council’s Feb. 18 meeting, when the body, at the time absent Dill, adjourned to executive session to discuss documents received from a possible alternative inspector.
At the council’s April 1 meeting, Dill asked if the council had received or acted on any information from George Reese regarding possible inspection changes while he was gone. Reese is a former municipal building inspector with the Sarpy County Building Department who is now retired. Gottsch said that Reese had submitted the requested information and the council had reviewed it in a previous meeting.
The information was discussed in more depth at the April 15 council meeting.
Reese had submitted a cost analysis to the city, exploring the possible costs and fees the city might incur if it decided to create its own inspection department, from training sessions to travel expenses to consulting fees. The city would also need three sets of code books, which cost $1,700.
At the previous meeting, Dill said one of the reasons to consider switching inspection services is that the Sarpy County Board is proposing a fee raise again this year, this time on residential and commercial projects in cities’ extraterritorial zoning jurisdictions. This would mean that Springfield would be asked to impose fee increases on projects built within a mile of Springfield’s city limits.
Funds raised in this way would be sent to the county and spread out to pay for road improvements in the county, lowering the burden of road projects on property taxes. The model is similar to a structure already in use in Omaha and in Douglas County.
Dill said he was sure the proposal would pass at the county level, but that didn’t mean Springfield had to adopt it.
“Some of the fees will double, and I have a lot of concerns,” he said at that meeting. “Road improvements will be a matter of priorities as funds become available. If we want to get Pflug Road paved, what if we don’t fill the coffers as fast as the other cities?”
Councilman Randy Fleming suggested the council invite Jim Warren, the county commissioner whose district includes Springfield, to come to a future meeting so that the issue could be addressed publicly. Fleming spoke to Warren about the issue between the April 1 and April 15 meetings, and he reported to the council on April 15 that Warren said he would invite Bruce Fountain, the county’s planning and building director, to attend a future meeting of the city council to discuss the council’s concerns.
The council agreed to table the matter until they could meet with county officials for a discussion.
Fleming said in a later interview that Fountain was not available for the next few meetings, and Gottsch sent an email to the council last week suggesting dates on which Fountain would be available for private meetings with the council in May.
Fountain said via email that he was working to schedule meetings with the appropriate people to discuss issues or concerns.
“We want to sit down and thoroughly explain our processes, fees, schedules, etc. and get their feedback and input,” he said.
One of the city’s concerns is the length of time involved in inspections.
“My major concern is the time frame it’s taking for inspections to be done,” Fleming said. “The county’s goal is 10 days, but they’re pushing that now. I wanted us to get the real facts from the people we are currently hiring. That’s the best way to address the council’s concerns and see if it’s going to remain a problem and make a logical decision based on that.”
Fountain said the county has consistently provided building inspections within 24 hours of when they are called in to be scheduled. The county also handles building permit plan reviews for Springfield, with the goal of turning permits around with a maximum of 10 working days from when the plans are submitted.
“Until the recent increase in development, we have been able to turn them around faster than that in most cases,” Fountain said. “However, due to increased housing and commercial development, we are seeing a much larger number of plans, and, recently it has taken up to 15 working days to get permits issued on some commercial projects.”
Fountain said that more complicated projects require such additional review time, and the county also reviews plans for the unincorporated areas of the county. Staffing needs are currently being reviewed for the next fiscal year in light of the increased demand.
Speaking to the fee increases in September that initially raised concerns about the inspection contract, Fountain said the fees were more in line with what other jurisdictions in the area were charging and were adopted by the County Board after significant research and meetings with area builders.
“The County was very careful to adopt new fees that were in line with what our counterparts were charging,” he said.
The increase in fees also paid for the county to hire a full-time electrical inspector to keep up with development and provide better service.
Although the meetings with Fountain will influence the city’s opinions on the matter, Dill said the city has every intention of honoring its contract with the county and is merely exploring its options if it should want to terminate the contract at some future point.
“I’d have to look at the contract again to be sure, but I think either party can terminate the contract with some notice,” he said. “But we’re only looking at potential options, and I don’t know that we have any idea on what we might do or when, other than obviously honoring that contract. Anything else would be purely speculative on my part.”
Dill said at the April 15 council meeting that he had broached the subject with city employees to see what their feelings were.
“Right now, city employees are a little skittish about this idea, because they’re not quite sure what all it will entail for them,” he said. “We aren’t making any decisions now, but at some point in time, we have to decide if we do or if we don’t.”