Privatization vs. public service

Board members of inspection firm say county building department can’t compete

By Tim Barnum|Staff writer
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ARENAC COUNTY — Last year, the Arenac County Board of Commissioners raised rates for the county building department and made it a part-time office in efforts to save the department, and commissioner Joseph Sancimino has hit the road, visiting township boards promoting the office with its administrator Theresa Irving, but some say the office is obsolete – specifically township officials opting for Township Code Enforcement.

The board for Township Code Enforcement (TCE), a private building inspection firm that is currently used by Adams, Arenac, Deep River, AuGres and Lincoln townships; as well as the City of Omer and the City of Standish met on Feb. 26, rebutting claims made by Sancimino and Irving during their visits, while preparing members of the TCE Board, which includes a representative from every township or city board that utilizes its services, for additional promotional visits and making Code Enforcement’s case to a representative from Standish Township.

“We separated to give our residents better service,” said Lincoln Township Supervisor and code enforcement board member Dave Hertzberg. “I don’t think they (county building department) can really compete with us here.”

Allan Thompson, chief building official for Code Enforcement, says services of Code Enforcement, such as 24-hour turnarounds for inspections after a request have made the private building department grow in popularity. He says weekend inspections are even done at times and, on the other hand, the county’s department is only open Tuesday through Thursday.

“We do, at times do Saturdays being this is a cabin community,” Thompson said.

Hertzberg also had a clear message for the board members if the representatives of the building department attempted to use rates as leverage.

“If the county comes to you and says they’re cheaper, you’ve been misinformed,” he said.

To back up his claim, Hertzberg distributed rate sheets to all in attendance. On the sheets for mechanical, electrical and plumbing inspections, it was shown to cost $30 for an inspection application fee and $30 for the actual inspection, with varying costs due to other variables. Residential building fees were 14 cents per square foot for newly built homes, additions, basements and garages; 10 cents per square foot for mobile/manufactured/modular home inspections.

The county building department had its rates increased by the board of commissioners last year to $90 for electrical, mechanical and plumbing inspections and the cost for a building permit set at 23 cents per square foot – all in an effort to generate more revenue for the department.

The Lincoln Township Supervisor also says county commissioners were invited to attend the informal board meeting on Feb. 26.

“I just don’t think that was something we needed to go to,” said Arenac County Board of Commissioners Chairman Raymond Daniels. “If they want to sell the county something they need to come to our building.”

Daniels also says he knows not every unit represented by Township Code Enforcement has been satisfied.

“I was told Code Enforcement did have some issues with a couple of townships in Bay County dropping out,” Daniels said.

“They (units of Bay County) have told some of the units up here that we are doing stuff illegal. … We’re under the same regulations anyone else is. It’s all state-regulated,” Thompson said, adding the issue is currently in the hands of attorneys and he couldn’t elaborate on the issue. “I know [in] Standish Township, a couple of their people have been told that stuff. … It has hurt our potential here for other units to join.”

At a board of commissioners meeting on June 24, 2008, when the decision was made to change the building department to a part-time office, representatives from Standish Township were the most vocal in requesting the county building department remain open. Daniels adds that everybody in attendance at the meeting told the board to keep the building department open and none spoke up to close it.

Code Enforcement, while involved in a legal issue itself, however, says the county did something illegal when it loaned the building department approximately $19,000 to balance last year.

Daniels, though, says Code Enforcement is misunderstood, as were others who told him the board broke a law by floating money to the ailing department.

“When they told me that, I called Dennis (Stawowy, Arenac County Treasurer) and asked if we could do that. Dennis immediately called our auditor and asked that and he (auditor) said ‘No, that’s no the case,’” Daniels said. “If someone from Code Enforcement can show me that state statute, I wish they’d show me.”

A statute isn’t the only concern Code Enforcement had regarding the state, however.

“If they (building department) do fail and close, the state will comes in,” said Deep River Township Supervisor and Code Enforcement Board member Robert Budz.

Thompson added the state usually has a two-week wait on inspections, higher rates and stays in a county for two years.

And Hertzberg alleges that the board of commissioners is going to have to make the decision to close the building department in the near future.

“I was hoping the commissioners would be here because they’re going to have to face this sooner or later,” he said. “They told us at the (promotional) meeting that it was a convenience. But it looks like it’s a convenience that we can no longer afford.”

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