Updating the City of Batavia’s building permit fees will even the playing field and produce revenue for the municipality that more accurately reflects the amount of time and effort spent by Inspection Bureau employees on residential and commercial projects.
That’s the view of Assistant City Manager Jill Wiedrick, who proposed a new fee schedule at Monday night’s City Council Conference Meeting at the City Hall Council Board Room.
Wiedrick, asserting that she knows a little bit about construction inspection and code enforcement “to be dangerous,” offered a list of reasons why she thinks the time is right for a revision of permit charges for undertakings such as roofing, fencing, siding and home/business additions.
Working in conjunction with the city’s Bureau of Inspection, Plumbing Board and Bureau of Maintenance, she said the updated fee strategy emphasizes easy calculation (via Energov computer software), fairness, flat fees, signed contracts and penalties for work done without a permit.
Actually, Wiedrick knows more than “a little bit” about the subject as she returned to Batavia in July after serving as the City of Rochester’s manager of zoning. Previously, she worked for the Genesee County Planning Department for seven years and before that worked as a construction inspector.
Charged with evaluating the city’s current state of affairs concerning inspection and permit fees, she said she discovered inefficiencies in the time spent by staff and the way in which fees were determined.
WIEDRICK: PERMITTING IS A PROCESS
“A lot of us think that once those drawings (for the work) are submitted (to the city), that’s the end of the story,” Wiedrick said. “I get my permit and I move on with my life. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Many times, when our crew gets the permit into the office, it’s reviewed at least twice, maybe three times.”
Wiedrick said in most cases the submitted drawings are missing key information or don’t meet code standards – instances that trigger more work and additional inspections at the location.
“Typically, for residential permits for an addition, the inspection might go out there five times. They’re checking out first what does the soil look like, the forms for the foundation, then see the foundation being poured – they’re out there a number of times,” she said.
Under the current system, city inspectors have to take notes at the site and come back to the office to input the information into a computer. Wiedrick said that with Energov software, this can be done by using a laptop at the property being renovated.
“What it’s (Energov) going to do is provide the opportunity for code enforcement officers to do things in the field live,” she explained. “It’s going to make them 1,000 times more efficient … and the process easier for them and the public. It will advance our inspections department immensely.”
As for the current fee schedule, which hasn’t been updated in at least 15 years, she said it is challenging for the staff and the public to figure out the right permit fees, and often the city receives checks for permit fees in the wrong amount.
LOOKING AT THE KEY COMPONENTS
Key aspects of the permit fee structure as of today include the following:
- Based on the cost of the project, along with the square footage, with no flat fee permits.
- Often inaccurate costs of project provided to staff, resulting in incorrect permit fee.
- Schedule penalizes use of higher end materials for projects.
- Work without a permit is not penalized.
The proposed new schedule would focus on the following:
- Can be calculated by Energov and the public.
- Fair to all.
- Many permits are proposed to be a flat fee.
“Who doesn’t love flat fee permits?” Wiedrick said. “You know exactly what you’re paying for whatever your project is. A flat fee permit also says you can put in whatever sort of high end products that you’d like to use for that project and not be penalized for that.”
- Require a signed contract when work is performed by a contractor, ensuring the proper fee is assessed.
“This happens across the board in every municipality,” she said. “Somebody knows they’re doing a $10,000 deck … and they’ll come in and say, I’m only spending $2,500 and we base the permit fee on that $2,500 and everybody knows that the deck is $10,000 deck but we don’t have the ability at this point to say, no, no, no, I know how much that’s going to be. The proposed fee schedule takes that out.”
- Project not found on the list of flat fee permits, the value is multiplied by 1.25 percent to determine the fee.
- Work without a permit will result in the permit fee being multiplied by three.
“At this point, if I’m a contractor or a person, I’m going to take my chances, I’m going to gamble,” she said. “I’m going to do my project and if I get cited, I know that I’m just going to pay the permit fee – no big deal. And if I don’t, I keep that permit money.”
CHRISTIAN: IT’S NOT THE RIGHT TIME
Upon completing her presentation, Council member Rose Mary Christian quickly spoke against a change in the fees – mentioning the “economy, inflation, food, utilities and gas.”
“I’m looking at these figures here, for instance, an addition to a piece of property – a commercial one where right now it’s $550 (based on 1,400 square feet, $105,000 project), and it will be $1,260. That’s quite a jump,” Christian said. “With everything that’s going on, I think that this is the wrong time to bring this to us. There’s a lot of people out there that are hurting right now and this is going to hurt them even further … I’m not in favor of this by no means.”
Wiedrick countered by saying that another reason for the proposed changes is to cover the city’s expenses for providing the service.
“One of the things that’s happening right now is when a resident does a project or there’s a commercial project, essentially with the current fee schedule, all of the residents of the City of Batavia are subsidizing those projects,” she said. “So, if I never put up a deck in the entire time I’m living in Batavia, I still – because the fees are not commensurate with the work that has to go into it – am subsidizing other work that’s happening.
“The idea was to raise the fees so we’re ensuring that we’re covering those costs and we’re actually keeping pace with the other municipalities.”
Christian replied, “I don’t care what other municipalities are doing. I care about what’s happening here in Batavia.”
City Manager Rachael Tabelski noted that some of the fees in the new schedule are being reduced for residents while some are increasing for various commercial projects.
TABELSKI: NOT A LAUGHING MATTER
“The majority of the commercial projects that we’re seeing are businesses that are thriving and using grant money funneled through the city and we continue to have so much staff time spent on them,” Tabelski said, later adding that contractors “laugh at our fee schedule – at how low our pricing is … but yet how many hours they take from our Inspection office.”
Christian changed her tune a bit, stating that she “can agree” to the commercial work charges (although she cited a proposed commercial fee change in her initial argument).
“But as far as residents go and people from the city, no, I don’t agree with it,” she added.
Council President Eugene Jankowski Jr. said his takeaway was that an attempt was being made to establish fees that were in line with the cost of the work being performed by Inspection Bureau staff.
“The Inspection office is fully funded by the General fund; it cannot be funded by the water fund or the sewer fund, so it is a direct result of property taxes,” Tabelski said. “We only have those employees … because of property taxes and to try to offset some of that in a small way, especially on commercial type activities … this would be somewhat helpful.”
Council member Robert Bialkowski said that while he didn’t have a problem with the new fee schedule, he did call for educating the public on the need to obtain building permits.
“There’s a lot of work being done on evenings and weekends, and a lot of work that’s not visible from the street … roof replacements and all that – where there’s no permits issued and the people know they need to get a permit,” he said. “There’s contractors that are a little on the shaky side that know they can evade the permits because it won’t be visible from the street.”
CANALE: ‘AN UNFRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT’
Council member John Canale agreed, adding that the perception from commercial contractors and developers is that the “City of Batavia is the hardest one to get along with. (But) I’ve worked with those guys (Inspection Bureau) and I think they’re very easy to get along with.”
“The business world sees us as an unfriendly environment,” he continued. “I hear that all the time. I heard it for years when my father was a councilman. That Batavia is business unfriendly. We’re not. So, if we do a few things proactively, I think we can clean that reputation up a little bit.”
Wiedrick said that inspections is a tough line of work.
“I’m probably one of 10 people in New York that is passionate about inspections because I know how important it is. I’m a big cheerleader for our team because they do a good job,” she said, crediting Code Enforcement Officer Doug Randall for his contribution to the new fee schedule study.
In the end, Jankowski said he looks forward to receiving input from residents and to work on the educational component. The proposal was forwarded to a future Council Business Meeting (possibly Nov. 8) for a possible vote.
Photo: Assistant City Manager Jill Wiedrick, left, speaking to City Council about the proposed permit fee schedule revision. Photo by Mike Pettinella.
Previously: City Council to consider permit fee schedule update