By Mary Velan
Sure, code enforcement and dealings with building inspections may not be the most exciting aspect of local government, but the industry is a state of innovation. Many cities are entering public-private partnerships, outsourcing or sharing code enforcement services to ensure cost-efficiency and boost overall performance.
In an interview with EfficientGov, SAFEbuilt’s Dexter Sullivan, Business Development/Public Affairs Manager, outlined the municipal trends shaping the future of code enforcement among city and regional governments.
Current State of Code Enforcement
One pattern found among many local governments is the silver tsunami, or the increasing number of public employees on the cusp of retirement. As more code enforcement officers retire over the next 10 years, cities find themselves in a position to reevaluate the department and find ways to cut costs while replacing personnel.
According to the International Code Council, the typical code professional is between the ages of 45 and 64 – with 28.8 percent between 45 and 54, and 45.6 percent between 55 and 64. Of the current population of code enforcement officers, 51 percent plan to leave and retire in less than 5 years while 31 percent will exit in 5 to 15 years.
“There is ample opportunity for public private partnerships to arise at the county and local levels,” Sullivan told EfficientGov. “Shared services, supplemental services and other arrangements can be implemented in a more creative fashion because the personnel won’t be there. These options offer efficient solutions until cities can regrow a crop of personnel.”
How Do These Relationships Evolve?
Sullivan explained that there is no one way or prime model to follow when using a third party to deploy code enforcement services. Every municipality is different with unique needs, ordinances, relationships, priorities and resources.
“We must consider if they are in cost-effective budgeting or cost-recovering budgeting,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes we can provide all services for a municipality, sometimes they benefit more from partial services. Sometimes we take over existing workforces, sometimes we are integrating into a local team. There is no one formula to meet the needs of the community.”
Leon Rockingham, the Mayor of North Chicago, has discussed outsourcing the municipality’s code enforcement to SAFEbuilt as a means to deal with economic fluctuations and personnel challenges. Among the many perks realized by Rockingham, the cost efficiency of privatized staff and outsourcing of liability concerns could be appealing for most communities.
“The public-private partnership setup enables the provider to hone in and deal directly with unique issues a city may have,” Rockingham told EfficientGov. “Many communities don’t have personnel with specific skill to manage code enforcement, building inspections or commercial inspections. Bringing in a SAFEbuilt professional can effectively take care of these concerns while remaining under budget.”
What To Consider
According to Sullivan, many cities struggle to manage a skilled code enforcement workforce amid inconsistent activity or fluctuating economies. These departments often face too much work or too little to accommodate the personnel. Privatizing code enforcement services can create a buffer for these fluctuations through a shared workforce that municipalities cannot afford on their own.
“Departments are not operating at enterprise-level and governments must subsidize the department because revenue does not pay for labor,” Sullivan told EfficientGov. “We can share labor across multiple jurisdictions to make privatization even more cost effective for each city, while responding to fluctuations in demand and activity.”
To achieve these shared services agreements, organizations such as SAFEbuilt provide the equivalent of intergovernmental agreements between municipalities. The shared services between departments are created through outsourced agreements that provide guaranteed pricing for all participants.
Cities should consider both their short- and long-term goals when deciding what type of privatization plan to choose. In the immediate, privatization can help communities ensure code enforcement services are available to residents in a timely and cost-effective manner. Looking to the future, outsourcing and shared services enable municipalities to stabilize their revenue streams associated with community development activities to ensure capabilities for long-term projects and growth.
Sullivan recommends municipal leaders speak with other city governments that have participated in a privatization plan to get a better idea of how it works and what to expect.
“Municipalities understand each other better and it takes the sales element out of it,” Sullivan said. “City leaders should talk to a peer on how they addressed a problem, what they worked through and what obstacles they encountered or did not foresee.”
When Sullivan first initiates a plan with a municipality, he looks at the city budget first and foremost. Sullivan suggests municipal leaders weigh the cost and revenue streams associated with the activity to determine what is being spent and where there is opportunity to reduce spending while improving performance.
“City leaders should take a head count, look at activity levels and see how many inspections their personnel complete in a day,” Sullivan told EfficientGov. “If the total is below 10 inspections on a daily basis, they are probably not efficiently doing the permits or inspections. Sometimes to turn the service around involves getting the right people, the right place, the right service and the right time. City leaders should determine where their disparities lie.”
Rockingham used discussions with SAFEbuilt as an opportunity to reevaluate the department and consider possible restructuring of services to benefit the community. SAFEbuilt was able to not only offer improvements to personnel and services, but also update local code ordinances and requirements to be more germane to the surrounding communities.
“When our code ordinances line up with those in nearby communities, it eliminates any inconsistencies when going between cities or comparing them,” Rockingham said.
Because some neighboring cities were already working with SAFEbuilt, there was ample opportunity for North Chicago to enter into a shared services agreement where privatized personnel handle all the code enforcement and each participant enjoys equal savings.
Rather than waiting for other cities to take the lead, Rockingham thinks municipal leaders should look at their unique concerns with regards to current and future code enforcement services in the community. This would provide them with an understanding of what is working, what is failing and where disparities will grow in the future.
“Then when they start a discussion with a private organization, they will have a better idea of whether they want to restructure, downsize, outsource or share the services,” Rockingham told EfficientGov. “Municipalities are still looking to do more with less despite the economic rebound. This is one of the avenues in which they could possible build on toward to ensure future efficiency.”
When the topic of privatization comes up, many municipalities experience backlash from local unions concerned with loss of jobs. But Sullivan explains in many instances there are no jobs lost but rather training provided to ensure municipalities have the future workforce in place to serve future residents. Furthermore, code enforcement is continually being integrated into more municipal departments, making outsourced professionals even more valuable.
“Through the SAFEbuilt Training Program, we envision building a workforce of code enforcement officers, building inspectors and permit technicians that do the permit intake that can be the equivalent of police or fire,” Sullivan told EfficientGov. “Outsourcing code enforcement services is in the early stages now and will likely grow quickly like it did for waste management and other services. It is up to municipalities to decide if they want to be on the leading edge or the trailing edge of public service efficiency practices.”