Municipal building departments can go from being under resourced to overstaffed as they address the cycles of construction booms and busts. Cities that are strategic can weather fluctuating community development demands.
Public-private partnerships (P3s) can also help municipalities improve code enforcement operations, services and response times as well as address staffing issues, like a retiring, knowledgeable workforce.
Several municipalities have leveraged P3s for building inspections and plan review functions as well as for code enforcement operations. EfficientGov and Safebuilt hosted a roundtable during the California League of Cities annual conference in October to talk about how P3s can improve service and streamline staffing for municipal building departments.
Best Practices to Improve Services
Dexter Sullivan, Safebuilt’s business development and public affairs manager, said a P3 started in 2015 has been helping Atlanta, Ga., with building department training and standard operating procedures. As a result, Atlanta is improving the efficiency of plan review and other building department tasks by 85 percent.
Plan review used to require a 10-day turnaround, and 20 days for commercial plans, said Sullivan. Now, Atlanta’s building department is completing initial reviews of commercial building projects in less than 10 days, and in three days for residential plans.
“Everybody is using the same play book, and they operate a lot better,” said Sullivan.
Recruiting for the Long-Term
According to the International Code Council, there is a growing concern that workforce shifts will challenge the building industry, which led to the ICC’s 2014 survey on the Future of Code Officials.
Atlanta was experiencing a national trend, which the survey confirmed, that building code enforcement staff is largely getting older while fewer younger participants are entering these careers. The city asked Safebuilt to supplement their building department workforce, said Sullivan.
“Over the next 10 years, the majority of these professionals will be retiring. But there is not a lot of recruitment…Construction inspectors and plan examiners are high paying jobs for non-college graduates,” he Sullivan.
The Atlanta-Safebuilt P3 will launch a training program early in 2017 in order to leverage the city’s educated personnel before they retire. It’s critical that the building department does not lose institutional knowledge, said Sullivan, so trainees will be paired up with experienced staff as part of the program.
Proactive vs Reactive Code Enforcement
When Troy Brown, city manager for Tracy, Calif., a city located about 60 miles east of San Francisco with a population of about 85,000, asked how a P3 could help analyze code enforcement practices and operations, Sullivan told him about Safebuilt’s partnership with King County, Wash.
Previously King County’s code enforcement, like most municipalities, was reactive. The county would rely on its 311 system for reports, said Sullivan.
Brown and his team, including his code enforcement director Ana Contreras, are looking at double the amount of code reports they normally have, and outdated codes that Tracy’s city council is currently talking about updating.
“Our ultimate goal is to enhance the built environment,” Brown said, adding that he would like to know how other cities of about the same size handle their code enforcement processes—“What are their tasks? What are their tools?” He’d like to gauge Tracy’s performance from a best practices perspective, he told EfficientGov.
With a department of three people, and a police officer that deals with overflow calls one day per week, meeting Tracy’s code enforcement demands are a challenge, said Contreras. While her department is recruiting a code case manager, and switching over to new management software, the team would like to know if it could become more efficient with its current tools and resources, as well as get advice on how to make their inspections more consistent.
When King County turned to Safebuilt to evaluate their code enforcement practices, one of the first changes the county made was to actively pursue neighborhoods for potential code problems before they become reports. For example, sometimes older residents on fixed incomes can’t pay for their grass to be cut. “It’s a collective waste of everybody’s time to write tickets that folks can’t afford to pay…. We look to resolve those situations before they become issues,” said Sullivan.
SafeBuilt conducted focus groups with building department staff as well as homeowners and learned a lot about how code enforcement is perceived there. “If it’s correctly positioned, it shouldn’t be perceived as punitive,” said Sullivan. County staff position code enforcement in their interactions with residents as helping them maintain the value of their homes.
Myriad changes are helping King County improve its operations.
The city of Detroit has 2,500 registered and 80,000 unregistered rental properties, but that is changing quickly. The city has partnered with Safebuilt to help with what it expects to be a vast short-term increase in the number of rental housing inspections it can conduct.
The city is responding to lead concerns in the region and has prioritized inspecting unregistered rental properties. In June, the city asked unregistered rental property owners to come forward voluntarily before enforcement is stepped up in 2017.
Annual Inspections of rental properties and changes of occupancy are required, but Detroit’s leadership has stepped up efforts to enforce the ordinance. Fines will be levied, and the city plans to monitor the programs progress and report back to citizens in the form of a “scorecard.”