Routt County rejects city of Steamboat’s interest in privatizing building department

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— The City of Steamboat Springs and Routt County officials are proceeding arm in arm toward digitizing the Routt County Regional Building Department with plans to install new software for online processing of building permits by the end of the year. But when it comes to the bigger question of the city’s continued participation in the building department that it shares with the county, the future is less clear.

City Council President Bart Kounovsky said “we’re absolutely on board” with plans for the new software after Wednesday’s meeting of the Building Department Oversight Committee. Kounovsky has been a proponent of modernizing the building department’s software to make the process more efficient since at least 2011.

The total cost of the new Viewpoint software is about $170,000 including training and some annual upgrades, and the money will be taken from building department reserves. City and county officials visited Sheridan, Wyo., where the software is in use and received positive reviews from officials there.

Kounovsky was noncommittal Wednesday when county officials informed the committee and about 30 people in the audience that they were not interested in a city proposal to farm out building department functions to SAFEbuilt, a private contractor from the Front Range.

Board of County Commissioners Chairman Tim Corrigan told the gathering it is his determination that the county and city both would be best served by continuing to operate the Regional Building Department, and that is the county’s intention.

“I think that at this point the ball is in the city’s court,” Corrigan said.

City Councilman “Scott Myller (who also serves on the oversight committee) and I will take it back to City Council,” Kounovsky said. “We aren’t looking at splitting from the building department, but at the same time, we have process to follow.”

City Manager Deb Hinsvark did not participate in Wednesday’s meeting because an illness prevented her from coming to work at City Hall.

In the midst of the latest ongoing discussions about the future of the Building Department, the chief building department official Carl Dunham retired as planned on March 5, and County Manager Tom Sullivan said he is now moving forward on replacing him. Assistant building official Ted Allen has assumed additional responsibilities in the interim, and Sullivan has taken on administrative oversight.

“I have advertised to fill the building official opening, and the deadline for applications is April 18,” Sullivan said.

He told Steamboat Today that he had postponed seeking Dunham’s successor with the knowledge that it was possible the county wouldn’t be employing someone in that role if the city's and county’s research on the SAFEbuilt proposal resulted in a change of course.

The discussion over privatizing the building department functions goes back to April 2013, when Hinsvark informed the Oversight Committee that her staff was undertaking a cost benefit analysis of privatizing the building department. According to Sullivan, the analysis came back in the form of a proposal from SAFEbuilt.

The most recent proposal from the company anticipates 15 percent savings on building code permitting and enforcement. Sullivan recently wrote that his analysis shed doubt on whether that much advantage could be gained.

Following an October 2013 meeting of the committee on the SAFEbuilt proposal, the group agreed to seek proposals from a variety of vendors for new building department software, Sullivan added. It also was agreed upon that if the software vendor used by SAFEbuilt turned out to be the preferred choice, that would trigger a more in-depth investigation of the broader proposal. But the city and county now have chosen another software provider, Viewpoint.

SAFEbuilt Vice President David Thomsen gave a detailed presentation on his company’s proposal Wednesday and said his company seeks to retain the existing staff in communities where it works and blend them in with its employees, who have a history of giving back to those communities.

In terms of the benefits his company offers its clients, which include the city of Windsor and the town of Vail, Thomsen said SAFEbuilt would offer contractors in Routt County a three-day turnaround on plan review for single-family residential projects, 10 days for multi-family and 15 days for large commercial developments. In addition, the company would deliver next-day building inspections with the inspector arriving on-site within a two-hour window.

Former regional building department official Ron Goodrich questioned the feasbility of that last promise.

“That’s an almost impossible window," Goodrich said. "It’s a very large land area.”

Thomsen indicated he was confident in his company’s ability to back up those promises.

“It is a challenge, but we have systems, processes and tools in place that allow us to deliver that,” he said.

Tom Fox of Fox Construction and Mark Halvorson of Snow Country Construction also closely questioned Thomsen.

“I’m concerned about (SAFEbuilt’s) pace of growth – 40 communities in two years,” Fox said. “What happens in a fast turnaround process when you miss some items, plans are out and being bid, you missed something, and it was built wrong. How do you handle the cost?"

“We are really, really, really good at what we do,” Thomsen said. “We put structures in place to handle the growth. I’d give you our full list of clients without vetting them, and you could ask them anything. I think you’d be surprised at what you find out.”

Architect Eric Smith, with offices in Steamboat and Boulder, said he has had positive experiences in places where building department services are contracted out including some involving SAFEbuilt in Vail and other communities. He said he has enjoyed good relationships with Goodrich and Dunham, but he’s never seen the local building department turn around a plan review in three days. He added he hopes the city and county will look more closely at the proposal.

“The three-day and 10-day turnaround is a pretty incredibly quick turnaround,” Smith said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with this so-called outsourced (building department services). I’ve never had a guy miss a date on us. And we often deal in resort communities where we’re working on big projects.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Comments

Scott Wedel 6 months, 2 weeks ago

A completely radical solution which would be eerily similar to the free market would be to allow the builder to decide which building review and inspection service to use. Each building dept service can be liable for faulty reviews or inspections.

In theory, the responsibility of local government is to ensure there are building dept services available and not to select which entity has the monopoly on providing the service.

Government would just need to audit the entities reviewing plans and doing inspections to maintain public confidence that the building codes are being met.

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