Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Building official costs under scrutiny

Keith Vandervort
Posted 3/20/15

ELY – At least one Ely City Council member is concerned the city is paying too much for building inspection and zoning services.

A recommendation from the city’s employee relations committee …

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Building official costs under scrutiny

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ELY – At least one Ely City Council member is concerned the city is paying too much for building inspection and zoning services.

A recommendation from the city’s employee relations committee to approve a new contract for Ely’s building official, Doug Whitney, was tabled this week so the issue can be studied further later this month.

Council member Paul Kess presented the council with information he gathered about building inspection fees and policies in nearby communities. “There is a lot of variation in the results,” he said. “They can be a starting point for further discussion.”

His motion to table the contract approval was supported by councilor Daniel Forsman and the issue will be on the agenda at the March 31 council study session.

Currently, Ely contracts with a Certified Building Inspector and requires permits for all residential construction. The inspector receives $35 per hour and averages 32 hours per week. Additional hours are paid at the same rate. In addition, the current contract provides for the official to receive 85 percent of the permit fees.

Slight changes to the new contract were recommended.

“In 2014 we were projected to spend $135,803 for building inspections,” Kess wrote in a memo. “In addition, we contract with an individual for zoning work, two days per week, at an annual cost of $26,000. Our total cost for part time building inspection and zoning exceeds $160,000.”

Three of the six area communities he queried about the issue have not adopted the Uniform Building Code and have no costs to enforce it, according to Kess. “St. Louis County has not adopted the code,” he said. “In fact, counties that have adopted the Code tend to be clustered around the metro area while few outstate counties have adopted the Code.”

Banks and insurance companies tend to require that new construction projects meet the Code and they may take care of the inspections.

“In all of these areas commercial work is governed by the Code and builders are inspected by the state at their own expense,” he said.

For 2014, the Building Official’s report showed $84,024.57 in total fees collected, but the budget shows year-end revenue of about $59,000, including plan review fees of about $11,000. “On average, we spend almost $1,000 to review and inspect every permit,” Kess said.

He noted that only one permit was for a new residential home. The balance of the permits was for remodeling, garages, roofs, windows, siding and decks. “From the data provided, it is difficult to tell how many were for commercial remodels,” he added.

“We owe it to the taxpayers to reduce these costs which are as much as three times the amount paid by similar communities that have adopted the (Uniform Building) Code,” he said. “While I’m not advocating for it (yet), we should at least discuss unadopting the Code, mostly because those who haven’t adopted the Code don’t seem to have any real problems.”

He suggested studying whether the city should hire a limited building inspector at less time and less cost. “We could retain a fully certified inspector for the few permits that exceed normal residential improvements and we should consider combining our building inspection and zoning positions,” he said.

Mayor Chuck Novak agreed that further study is needed on the issue. “There are questions from most of the council members on this,” he said. “It is best if walk through this and do a better comparison.”

The council agreed to extend the current Building Official contract for one month while a new contract is studied.

Other business

• Upon recommendation from the city’s Park and Recreation Board, councilors gave their approval to explore options for a dog park on vacant city land.

Council member Heidi Omerza indicated there have been a few more dog license purchases by city residents in the last several weeks.

That could easily bring the total number of licensed dogs in the city to more than 40. Licenses cost $5 per year and are available at the Ely License Bureau and City Hall.

• A buck skinners’ encampment will be invited back to Ely this fall based on a recommendation from the Harvest Moon Festival committee of the Ely Chamber of Commerce.

The one-year trial will include the following conditions: they must set up at the same time as the vendors on Thursday prior to the September festival in Whiteside Park; and no campfires, dogs or tobacco will be allowed in the park.

The council also gave the go-ahead to pursue design options for a potential skate park in the city. Various grants totaling as much as $10,000 have been awarded for the design process.

• The council authorized the City Attorney to pursue a development agreement with the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital.

• An off-sale liquor license was approved for the new owners of Mike’s Liquor, Mark and Dorothea Zojonc, of Tower, doing business as MDJM Inc.

• Council members took no action on a complaint from White Street resident Luthera Smith who requested to address the council about damage to her property and removal of her belongings as part of the city’s enforcement last year of the blight ordinance. The city attorney assured the council that the enforcement process followed the rules of the ordinance.

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