City of Saline Considers Outsourcing Building Inspection, Ordinance Enforcement

 12/27/2016 - 16:01
Craig Strong and Doug Lewan from Carlisle/Wortman Associates present a proposal to Saline city leaders.

Saline Building Inspector Tillman Taylor is retiring. Saline Code Enforcement Officer Adnan Soby, who was hired to work 25 hours per week, has resigned to accept a full-time job elsewhere. Because of these changes, Saline City Council is reviewing how to best meet these needs going forward.

“It has been a tradition of the City of Saline for some time to continue to evaluate – scrutinize – every service, every expenditure on our budget, every division of city government to identify opportunities for improved efficiencies, cost saving and reform,” Mayor Marl said at Monday’s City Council work meeting.

City Manager Todd Campbell contacted outside agencies to whom the work of building inspection and engineering services could be contracted out. Four agencies presented proposals: Washtenaw County, Carlisle/Wortman Associates, York Township and Pittsfield Township.

Representatives from three of these agencies made pitches to Council at the work meeting and Campbell summarized a written proposal from the fourth. Judging from the number of questions, city leaders seemed most interested in Carlisle/Wortman Code Enforcement Services.

The various agencies described their proposed services, including tracking software employed, office hours and location, available personnel, response times, fees and other specifics. There were many similarities between the proposals.

“I happen to know all the people,” said Tom Toth of York Township. “They are all good people. I don’t think you could go wrong with anybody.”

Toth has been building officer in York Township for nearly 20 years and has been deputy inspector in Saline for eight years. He will be the interim building officer in Saline, in the absence of Taylor.

Washtenaw County Building Inspection Administrative Supervisor Deborah Schmitt and Building Official Don Schnettler came to present the county proposal. It seemed only Council member Dean Girbach had questions for them.

Girbach asked about their office hours which would be one hour per day in the morning and by appointment. In response to another question, Schmitt said the county could process on-line applications in 24 hours, but such applications were limited to simple projects that do not need plan reviews.

The county offices are on Zeeb Road near I-94, a bit of a drive from Saline.

Company Vice President Doug Lewan and Director of Code Enforcement Craig Strong represented Carlisle/Wortman Associates. Lewan, Saline’s planning representative, said that they are now doing code enforcement in six communities in the area, e.g., the City of Howell and Springfield Township.

“What we are looking at here is to actually staff your department in this building to keep your department accessible to your citizens,” Strong said.

While they would have a building official assigned to Saline and available throughout the week, he would only be on site for one day per week. If at any time this inspector was unavailable, they would provide a backup.

Strong spoke of situations where they have come into a municipality whose construction management budget is in the red. A portion of their service is to help them get back in the black, partly by changing the calculation of fees for permits.

 Each member of Council had questions for the pair. Marl summed up the discussion calling it, “a very interesting proposal,” and one that had some attractive features – like regular office hours.

Marl also noted that he believes strong code enforcement is an important factor in making cities aesthetically pleasing and welcoming. He asked how Carlisle Wortman would handle this aspect of the job, i.e., would they proactively look for violations or just respond to complaints.

“We can tailor this to whatever the community wants,” Lewan said.

“My theory on code enforcement is that if you have to take someone to court, you’ve failed,” Lewan added. “It’s not our goal to issue tickets and take people to court. It’s our goal to work with people and try to get compliance through the city’s own enforcement.”

Marl asked if it would be possible for them to provide a full-time code enforcement officer, unlike the part-time position Saline had previously. Lewan said that they could provide that or they could supervise an officer hired by the city.

Campbell reviewed aspects of the Pittsfield Township proposal. They currently do building oversight for the City of Ypsilanti and would offer a similar program in Saline.

Of course the fifth possibility is to keep all building oversight in-house. The city could hire people to replace Taylor and Soby. Council member Jack Ceo and Mayor Pro Tem Rhoads both supported keeping it local.

Ceo has had a career in the police department and likes the concept of community policing where the community knows the officers and the officers know the community. He believes this idea should apply to building inspectors as well.

“The person who is here, the building inspector, feels like they are part of the community, that they know the community and that they want to make sure the right thing is done,” Ceo said.

Rhoads, who is a builder, agreed with Ceo. He said that the code book is so complex that in many respects, the interpretation is up to individual inspectors.

“If you get different inspectors at different times, you can really raise havoc with schedules,” Rhoads said. “And scheduling on a construction project, particularly a smaller remodel or addition or even on a new house is really critical. There are a lot of inspections that are required, a lot of steps to be taken, and if one of them gets delayed, it throws off the schedule for everybody else.”

Of course, all of the council members are cognizant of the bottom line and are interested in saving money whenever prudent. So, a sixth alternative would be to keep some services in-house and to contract out others.

Mayor Marl said that the issue will be included as a discussion item at the January 23 meeting of City Council. At that time he is hoping that the group can achieve consensus.

Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.