At the second Saline City Council in January, Mayor Brain Marl was hoping to find consensus on how to proceed with the organization of the city’s Building and Engineering Department, but it wasn’t there. Because of the divergence of opinions, a second work meeting to discuss the issue was scheduled for February 6.
Council has recently been reviewing the function of this department because they do this with all departments periodically and because the recent retirement of Building Inspector Tillman Taylor made it seem like the appropriate time to review this one.
At the work meeting, Council again discussed the possibility or farming out responsibilities that were formerly done in-house. City Manager Todd Campbell pointed out that although various council members had talked about “hybrid” options, where just some responsibilities are done by other agencies, the system they had was already a hybrid.
For example, the county has handled Saline’s electrical permits and Pittsfield Township has done plumbing inspections. Several council members, however, felt that more jobs should be outsourced.
Clerk Teri Royal noted that the deputy clerk Aimee Bloom has lately been spending 60 to 70 percent of her time dealing with building issues. This highlighted the need to quickly assign responsibilities for these duties.
Several of the council members said that they still found the issue confusing and needed more information. Some of these issues were answered by Campbell, City Superintendent Gary Roubal or representatives from Washtenaw County and Pittsfield Township.
Some council members dealt with cost issues, noting, for example, that employing Carlisle/Wortman Associates to take these responsibilities appeared to be considerably more expensive than other options. Others focused on meeting customer needs.
“My main concern is good service and a good clear path for customers to all of the services they need from our building department,” said Mayor Pro Tem Linda TerHaar.
The work meeting ended with more questions being answered but no consensus. Marl asked that the issue be put on the agenda for the February 13 Council meeting, expecting that a consensus could be reached then.
On February 13, each council member again expressed their views. A few, including Janet Dillon, Christen Mitchell and Dean Girbach noted that they did not feel like they had been provided adequate information or that the piecemeal way it was delivered had been confusing.
This opinion bothered Marl and he said he needed to learn more about what the inadequacy was.
“I have to tell you,” Marl said “I thought that two months was more than sufficient to make an informed decision.”
In spite of some uncertainty and one council member saying she was simply undecided, a partial consensus emerged. This consensus followed the recommendation of City Manager Todd Campbell. Campbell noted that there was little or no cost savings in any of the outside alternatives.
“I would recommend keeping it in-house at least going forward for the foreseeable future, because of the quality that we have,” Campbell said. “The other thing too is in the economic development portion, we’re able to provide a good solid turnkey service for our community for developments.”
Elaborating, he noted that being able to quickly address questions and concerns through responsive in-house services has been a boon for attracting businesses wishing to invest in the community.
The in-house option was also supported by Allen Scott of Rand Construction who spoke during citizen comments. He said that although his company works in many different municipalities in the area, he especially appreciated his interactions with local officials on projects in Saline.
“This community has been the most friendly, the most helpful,” Scott said. “Gary Roubal has been the best person for me to work with of any one of those communities. So, when I caught wind of the fact that it may be a department that becomes outsourced like so many other communities have been, I wrote down two words: ‘impersonal’ and ‘impossible.’”
Council member Jack Ceo concurred saying, “I am still not convinced that we should deviate from the course we are presently taking.”
TerHaar said that she fundamentally agreed with Ceo, but would still like city staff to carefully investigate possibilities for increased cost savings and efficiencies through farming out certain responsibilities. Council member Heidi McClelland echoed this position.
Mitchell said that she was inclined to stick with in-house services, but she was frustrated by inadequate data. She also said that the current situation reflected an “extreme lack of succession planning.”
Girbach was in favor of the county taking on many of the duties of the department, but accepted that some duties would still need to be done in-house. He thought that the mayor’s preference of farming out all building and engineering duties to Carlisle/Wortman Associates seemed too expensive.
Marl again supported his position, but acknowledged that his idea was an outlier. He said that he did agree with most of Council that “cost was important, but it wasn’t the most important.”
As a result of the discussion it appears that the city will be looking to hire a new building inspector to replace Taylor and also a Code Enforcement officer.