Our View: Building Trust
February 22, 2014
We think that the highest responsibility of the Routt County Regional Building Department is to protect the consumers who purchase residential, commercial and industrial buildings here. But right after that comes the role of efficiently serving the construction industry that is such an important economic driver in the local community.
That's why, when city and county officials met last week to discuss the possibility of privatizing the functions of building plan review and construction inspection, we listened carefully to what construction professionals had to say about the matter. The question was whether potential cost savings of contracting those services out to a Front Range company would create enough benefit to justify abandoning a locally staffed building department.
Building and design professionals ranging from architects to general contractors told us loudly and clearly that their access to, and their relationships with, local building department officials is critical. They depend on having people in that role who understand the climate and workforce issues that dictate construction conditions here. And they value the predictability that comes with having the same electrical inspector, for example, from project to project.
A big concern of the building community is that a privatized plan inspection process might result in arbitrary decisions with no recourse.
For those reasons, we think it is in the best interest of the city of Steamboat Springs and the rest of Routt County to maintain and fund local building department functions. We should point out that the local construction community hasn't always been pleased with the local building permit and inspection process. But it's not difficult to imagine how any prior frustrations easily could multiply if building department officials were working from an office in another city, and Routt County was one among numerous clients.
In terms of any benefits to be gained from privatization, we haven't seen hard evidence that the savings that might result from privatization, either in the area of reduced building permit fees for consumers, or in the cost of running a building department,are worth taking that risk.
That said, we don't fault the city of Steamboat Springs for approaching Routt County, its partner in the building department, to explore privatization at this moment in time. With building department official Carl Dunham set to retire March 5 and the department contemplating a software upgrade that could cost anywhere from $275,000 to $1 million-plus, exploring other options is reasonable right now.
It's also reasonable that the public might wonder why Routt County has yet to identify a successor to Dunham with his retirement imminent. County Commissioner Steve Ivancie provided a simple explanation this week: With the possibility that the city and county might privatize the building department, it wouldn't make sense to bring in a new chief building department official only to go in another direction. County Manager Tom Sullivan has offered assurances that he has alternatives for the interim, and we have faith that's the case.
Once you set a new course, it's difficult to reverse it. And that's another reason why we prefer to see the city and county continue into a new era with the local building department. Should we opt for privatization and become disenchanted with the service, it would only be more difficult and costly to return to what we already have.
Five years ago, the city of Steamboat considered withdrawing from the regional building department. Ultimately, it withdrew from that process after hearing the objections of contractors. And we would hope that the possibility of the city withdrawing from the regional building department altogether will not resurface in 2014.
Hayden has taken that step, and with the relatively low volume of construction activity there, it appears to be working. However, in Steamboat, where building contractors work both within the city limits and just outside them in rural subdivisions, a dual system likely would result in confusion and duplication of costs.
That's another reason why city and county collaboration on a strong regional building department makes the most sense to us.