Gastesi: Privatize building department?

By Steve Estes

Ask local contractors about the biggest problem they have in staying employed in the Florida Keys and you would think the answer would be the slow economy.

Maybe not.

In recent years one of the top complaints has been the inability to pull building permits from the county building department in a timely fashion.

And the list of reasons given by the contractors for that is long:

  • Changing personnel and passing the permits along to new faces
  • Different interpretations of the same building code by different examiners and inspectors
  • Constant revisions caused by those differing interpretations
  • Inability to conduct simultaneous reviews instead passing from office to office and holding until those issues are cleared

Shortly after County Administrator Roman Gastesi took the job four years ago, he embarked on a series of town hall meetings to take the pulse of his new community.

And what he heard at every stop was a deeply ingrained frustration from contractors and homeowners about the problems plaguing the building department and why that led to so many illicit minor construction jobs as homeowners would rather take the chance on dealing with code enforcement than put out the time and money to pull a permit.

“I got an earful back then,” said Gastesi.

And things haven’t improved much in the intervening four years.

“I field complaints in this area nearly daily,” he said.

About a year ago, Gastesi said his frustration level had reached the point where he was threatening to start the process to possibly privatize the building department.

That frustration level hasn’t receded much since then, either, and last week Gastesi announced his intentions to the upper level staff to start researching privatization of the building department.

“I remain quite frustrated with the building department, and as that level gets higher and we continue to provide poor customer service, maybe that signals that its time to put a request for proposals out there and see if there are private companies out there who can handle the job and gauge their interest in doing so,” Gastesi said.

Despite repeated meetings to address the subject, he said residents and contractors continue to experience “a lack of superior customer service.”

“Quite frankly this has been such an ongoing problem, and I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, that we’re going to have to talk about ways to address the issue that might seem a little drastic,” he added. “But we have to do what we have to do.”

Gastesi said the evaluation process begins now, but he’s not sure how long it might take.

“First I have to broach the subject to the county commissioners and get their approval to do the evaluation. We have to look at whether we can provide superior service to what we have now with a private firm, can we save money, can we continue to safeguard our building codes? Those are all questions that have to be answered,” he said.

He said even with privatization there might not be a lot of staff changes, “and then again there might. There is expertise there that we don’t need to waste.”

He said he believes upper management staff is trying to make inroads into the problem, “but the culture seems to be so ingrained we might not be able to root it out.”

“I’ve had a frustration with the process since I came on the commission 14 years ago,” said District Two Commissioner George Neugent. “And it all centers on the inability of people to get a permit in a timely fashion.”

He said it seems as though, even with repeated admonishment about the need for improvements, “we’re regressing on these issues.”

He agrees it may be time to test the privatization market.

“Of course, we may just find that we’re understaffed and we’ll have to bring more people on to get the job done, but we need answers to those questions,” said Neugent. “What we have right now is costing the industry dollars, costing jobs in the industry, and costing the county lost revenues every time someone goes ahead and does the work without a permit.”

Growth Management Director Christine Hurley, whose sphere of control includes the planning department, broke the news of the impending RFP last week to her employees.

She says that the building department is still operating at a negative each year with expenses outstripping income.

“Further, our turn-around times for permit/plan review have not improved and we have serious challenges with providing services. Some of our challenges are complexity, geography, lack of licensed professionals to perform various types of inspections and plan reviews, antiquated systems and more,” she said.

She said the review would include the cost to the county of providing in-house services versus the cost of a private provider and the pros and cons of using private providers under contract versus staff employees.

“The goal, of course, is to streamline service delivery and overall speed up permit issuance,” she said.

The county this week approved its 2013 budget with funding included to continue operation of the building department as an in-house function.

“There is also funding in this year’s budget for new permitting software that allows concurrent review of projects rather than consecutive and some interactive voice software that should free up time for staff,” said Gastesi. “We have to see if those things help.”

Neugeant said he considered this beginning of the RFP process to be more than just “another shot across the bow. That has been done more than once. This has been talked about for months, now we need to get the proposals presented to the Board of County Commissioners. There are decisions to be made.”

He said he believes that the upper level management team currently in place has the will to fix the problem and that the BOCC will see some recommendations in “months rather than years.”

“If we have these issues in a slow economy as opposed to a robust economy where the industry is booming, we have a very serious problem. I would think that either our management staff has the problem addressed internally or some suggestions for the BOCC to look at by the first of the year,” said Neugent. “I think 14 years is long enough to deal with the same problem.”

Gastesi said he hopes to talk to the commission next Friday at the rescheduled regular meeting to “get the review process rolling if that’s their desire.”

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