An in-house building code inspector, a uniform set of residential codes, better communication between Washington County and end users, fewer state restrictions, quicker and more efficient service and local revenues on the positive side of the ledger:
These are just a few benefits that on paper make a strong case for Washington County opting out of its current arrangement with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and cranking up its own residential building codes department. The department would fit into the stream that comprises the start-to-finish process, beginning with plans approved by the Washington County Zoning Office and ending with a county-issued permit.
It’s no secret the county is in catch-up mode when it comes to streamlining some of its governmental functions. The 235-year-old entity is about to vote on employing its first county attorney, and it just hired its first county archivist. Other firsts are working their way up the procedural food chain, including human resources, facilities management and information technology/communications departments.
The county still is accepting applications for a new state-certified building code inspector who will take on the duties of inspecting and re-inspecting a long list of items for new residential housing in the unincorporated areas of the county — a task that has been carried out by state inspectors out of Nashville.
The County Commission’s Budget Committee unanimously approved hiring an in-house inspector to fill that void. A recommendation will be made to the full commission on March 26 that the county pay the new employee up to $38,000 and create a Code Construction Board of Appeals. Throw in benefits and a vehicle, and the overall cost estimate is about $55,000.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 15 years,” said Mike Rutherford, zoning administrator. “This adds a personal touch that has been lacking. And, we will be using the International Residential Code for one- and two-family dwellings — the same guidelines used by state inspectors. Since 1984, we’ve only been responsible for issuing zoning compliance permits. Now, we will do inspections as well using the same codes, meaning Nashville can’t arbitrarily increase requirements.”
In October 2010, the state began providing inspectors for new residential construction. Prior to that date, the county made sure plans conformed to zoning codes — that’s it.
One of the gripes from builders has been that communication is hit-and-miss, largely due to the fact they must call an 800 number to schedule an inspection. What has happened in many cases is that a builder will not get the same inspector when they’ve made minor changes. Instead they may get someone unfamiliar with the site, and that can cause things to slow dramatically.
Aside from connecting with inspectors, builders must call and speak with a changing cast of state workers, which also has caused delays and frustration. Also, the county has been charging builders for permits once inspectors sign off on a structure. The county collects the fee then remits to Nashville all but $15 per permit.
“I hear a lot of complaints,” Rutherford said. “It’s (Zoning Office) been the central complaints office at the county. A lot of things gravitate to us. Owners of these buildings have had to call a 1-800 number in Nashville and schedule appointments. Sounds awkward, right? That’s why the County Commission wants to change it. The building community has been the driving force behind the change. The chief complaints have been: ‘we can’t talk to a human being.’
“Let’s say you just built a home and you had inspector number one. You build another home and get inspector number three who says he has a problem with the exact same thing that was approved by the other inspector. There’s no consistency. The builders get frustrated. You call Nashville, but the person you speak with is not always going to know which inspector they’re dealing with.”
Last calendar year, the county issued 168 residential permits for a total of $68,000. The state got more than $65,000 of that. The county collected about $2,500. Meanwhile, the county collected roughly $35,000 in zoning permit fees.
Rutherford said a county building permit would average about $400, and that money would be deposited into the county’s general fund.
“Now someone will be able to come in my office and talk with our building inspector,” he said. “If you’re still dissatisfied, you can go to our Code Construction Board of Appeals and work things out. This is a big deal. We’ll now be looking at things like footing, framing, plumbing, mechanical and roofing. And we’re not looking at this as a revenue producer. I’m estimating we would make between $10,000 and $15,000 in revenues.”
County Mayor Dan Eldridge agreed with Rutherford in that the county is not trying to generate a profit center for the county and that the goal is to offset the cost of the new service by the inspection and permitting fees.
“Step by step by step, we’re trying to bring Washington County into the 21st century,” Eldridge said. “Things are starting to happen in regards to changes and improvements that will be meaningful to taxpayers. Our goals are to be more efficient and effective. We’re also recognizing that these are required services — something we should have been doing before now.”
An appeal to Washington County’s new Construction Board of Appeals is proposed at $300 to mirror that of the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The amount of a second and each subsequent re-inspection is proposed at $100, the same amount charged by the state.
Rutherford said the county has received 17 resumes, and there already have been some good candidates identified. However, he intends to continue accepting resumes until a resolution calling for the new position and board is approved by the County Commission.
“Once the resolution passes, we will inform Nashville that the county is opting out of the state program,” he said. “I think we’re now ahead of the curve on this.”