A newly created project team has recommended Wasco County take over building code services.
The team formed because the board of commissioners wanted to investigate service under the current Mid-Columbia Council of Governments model as well as evaluate alternatives.
MCCOG has come under criticism for having high administrative overhead, lack of transparency and increased fees.
Wasco County Commission Chair Scott Hege is one of the critics.
“I have been critical of the operation, not so much the functional part of it but how it’s been managed in terms of the reserves, the rate increases, the transparency,” Hege said at the Nov. 4 commissioners meeting.
“Those are real concerns and this is not new. This has been going on for a few years and frankly there hasn’t been a lot of helpful changes with some of the concerns that we had. Personally, that’s why I have been pushing this issue hard and that’s why I want to see it looked at.”
Hege also noted that Hood River County is taking over its building codes beginning in April.
“It’s pretty easy to look at Hood River County and ask, ‘Why are you doing it?’” Hege said. “From a county perspective, that’s something I want to look at. Why would the county do it? Are there benefits to the county doing it? That’s what we’re trying to analyze.”
Wasco County Administrative Officer Tyler Stone, Planning Director Angie Brewer, County Clerk Lisa Gambee, IT Interim Director Paul Ferguson and The Dalles City Councilor Taner Elliot made up the project team that put a recommendation together.
They had less than 30 days to gather information and evaluate the different models so the report available on the Wasco County website is not a finished project.
“It’s an expansive amount of work to try to do,” Gambee said. “There were 10-plus meetings that we had in addition to gathering information. We were in a room for one morning four-plus hours. It has not been undertaken lightly and not a done deal by any means.”
The team started by creating a vision for an ideal building codes program and then evaluated four different models based on that vision. They looked at: the current MCCOG model; staying with MCCOG but adding items from the team’s vision like online permit technology and multi-certified inspectors; using a private firm to provide services; and
an in-house model that would incorporate building codes with the Wasco County planning department.
The project team judged each model on the same criteria and determined the in-house services would be the best for the county because it would provide the most revenue, transparency and be
the most convenient and efficient for the customer. The current MCCOG model was determined to be the worst for the same reasons.
“We did not say that one of these criteria was rated higher than the other,” Gambee said. “There was a lot of debate and a lot of back and forth.”
The recommendation did come with several caveats. Moving to the in-house model would be the most extensive transition and the largest risk for the county as far as cost impact and long term sustainability.
The planning department is busy working on other large projects, which may need to be re-prioritized.
Without the participation of all municipalities within Wasco County, the in-house model will not be feasible.
Due to how long it would take to implement a new program, the county may not be able to receive the revenue from several large commercial projects on the horizon.
The costs used to evaluate the current model were based on older budgets from the secretary of state because MCCOG had yet to provide its reports.
MCCOG Executive Director Bob Francis said the payroll of personnel expenses for this year is $645,000, not the $798,000 that the project team used. He also said the MCCOG report that was requested is 839 pages front and back and he’s trying to make an electronic copy.
The project team also noted, “The impact to MCCOG’s building codes program, if the county in-house model is pursued, would be significant. The county would want to consider moving the current employees over, assuming the skills needed are comparable.”
MCCOG currently employs a building official, program director, program assistant, structural inspector/residential plans examiner, two electrical inspectors and a plumbing inspector.
MCCOG has provided building code services for Wasco County since 2007. From Aug. 1, 2013 to Oct. 4, 2015, MCCOG issued 3,491 permits and collected $1,790,678 in fees specific to Wasco County.
Several contractors spoke at the Nov. 4 meeting and all were happy with the services they are currently getting from building codes.
“Right now we have building inspectors we trust, we know, we’ve worked with for years and we know what they expect out of us — and when you start contracting out and getting multiple building inspectors, it makes it really hard for us to know exactly what to do from building inspector to building inspector,” one contractor said. “I would just caution the planning commission to take this over because there’s a lot to it and it’s a hard job
and the guys that are doing it now are doing a good job.”
“You lose that one-on-one relationship we have with our inspectors now,” another contractor said. “I’ve got their cell phone number. I can call them and say I’m building a set of steps, what do I do? I get an answer right away. I just don’t want to lose that service level that we have now and their willingness to work after hours to get it done. It’s been working good for me. I don’t want to see it go in the wrong direction.”
A third contractor said, “I think there’s something probably wrong with MCCOG but building codes does a fine job for us.”
Commissioner Rod Runyon agreed.
“I don’t have any problem with building codes,” he said. “I think they’re doing a good job. I have a problem with where it’s housed so I think what we’re examining here is the possibility of housing it differently, whether completely differently or partially differently, to make it more effective.
“Our looking at things, that’s what we’re here for. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.”
Francis, who is new to MCCOG, didn’t deny the lack of transparency. He saw it as city manager of Hood River.
“I complained to the MCCOG people about the same thing,” Francis said. “I think the MCCOG board heard that and now there’s a change in the leadership positon because lack of transparency doesn’t come from [Building Codes Program Director] Stephanie’s [Ziegler] office. They do a terrific job. Anybody in this room will probably tell you that. Building codes does a terrific job. The lack of transparency stops with the executive director’s chair. That’s my job.”
Francis requested that either himself, Ziegler or someone else from MCCOG be added to the county’s project team to find the best solution for building codes.
“I really fear that if Wasco County moves forward with their own building department or own building codes section, I really believe it will be an impediment to the development in Wasco County and also believe that at some point in time, your fiscal sustainability is going to really suffer,” Francis added.
“I’m thinking before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s try and work as a team and try to get the best service that we can for the people that we serve.”
Francis also promised to end the lack of transparency.
“If anybody has a problem with MCCOG, they can come directly to me,” he said. “I have a great open door policy. I’ll meet them for a beer anywhere or a cup of coffee and we can sit down and we can talk it out. I guarantee we can come to a resolution.”
The board of commissioners has tentatively scheduled a work session for Dec. 2 to further look into building codes.
“The commissioners are committed to making sure the county is efficient as it can possibly be and provide the highest level of service,” Hege said. “That’s what’s behind really everything that we’re doing here.”