Plumas County department heads dealing with building and related permitting issues met with contractors at a recent Plumas County Economic Recovery Committee meeting to talk about measures taken to make permitting processes more efficient and the possibility of lowering development fees in the future.
County Planning Director Randy Wilson opened the discussion at the Wednesday, March 31, meeting with a presentation on changes the county has made to speed up the permitting process.
He told the contractors and PCERC members he had been meeting with the directors of the environmental health, public works and building departments every two weeks for the last two years.
Wilson said all four departments now looked at building permits right away so they could all work on potential issues in their respective areas at once instead of one at a time.
He also indicated the department were preparing for the possibility of a sudden increase in permits if the economy improves.
The director commented the first phase of such a scenario, dealing with more work while staffing levels were still reduced, might result in the planning department hiring a consultant.
The consultant would deal with the increased permit flows, allowing the department to continue focusing on the general plan update process.
The director also said some staff could be reassigned to different duties to deal with changing conditions.
Wilson told the crowd permits were the top priority right now along with the general plan, as the county wanted to encourage economic activity.
He said the departments related to building were keeping in contact with their counterparts in other counties to monitor economic trends and hopefully see any changes coming.
The director also encouraged people to talk about a project before getting to the point of turning in a permit application so problems could be identified before they dedicated a lot of money to an idea that might not be feasible.
He also explained clarity was a point of emphasis, and the departments were collaborating to make applications more clear in the short term, while planning was focusing on making the General Plan and zoning code more user friendly in the current updating process.
In the question and answer session that followed the presentation, one contractor said he did a project in Lassen County several years before and the plan checkers there were the same people who did on-site inspections.
Building Director John Cunningham responded some counties took that approach, but he didn’t like it.
“On the positive side the idea is that you establish a relationship and a familiarity with that project.”
“That’s what I liked about it,” the contractor replied.
“That can be a good thing.” Cunningham agreed before continuing, “It can also be a bad thing if the relationship doesn’t work well.”
Cunningham contended everyone on his staff brought a different perspective and he subscribed to what General Electric calls a “four eyes policy, where two sets of eyes were looking at everything.”
He said plan checking and field inspections were two different skill sets and some people liked combining them but he was currently leaning in the other direction.
The contractor said his other issue was that long-term projects would often have different people doing field inspections with different opinions on how things should be done.
Cunningham said consistency among staff members was always a goal but “it’s almost not possible.”
He said his staff met every month to talk about the issue and complaints from customers were examined with solutions found in a democratic manner, “with the exception I maintain veto power if I totally disagree.”
The director told the audience a decision was made on each topic, and everyone was supposed to enforce the rule uniformly afterwards.
He also explained the county used to be split up geographically so you would get the same inspector most of the time if you worked in one area, but with the loss of staff in the down economy that was now impossible.
The contractor thanked Cunningham for his explanations.
One builder said he’d been working in the Chester area for over 30 years and thought the small commercial permit fee was “pretty exorbitant.”
County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad told the builder Cunningham talked to him about the fee numerous times, and they both agreed it should be looked at.
“The difficulty is when I came we were almost at three million in permit fees in the building department and now were down to, what are you estimating next year?”
“I’m not willing to say right now,” Cunningham responded, causing the room to erupt in laughter.
“He’s dropping about 50 percent every time I talk to him,” Ingstad explained.
“Now would be an easier time to address it because the impact on the general fund would be even less and we did take away the impact fees.”
The builder agreed taking away the impact fees helped in some areas, but said the SCP fee for a small storage structure could be as large as the fee on a house sometimes.
“Well if you can put together a group of people, now is the perfect time to do it,” Ingstad told him.
He went on to suggest some of the contractors form a group to meet with Cunningham and bring the issue to the county budget committee.
“If there’s justification to take a look at these fees, I’m planning on doing an entire revamp of the master fee schedule at budget time so now is the time to address it.”
Ingstad added he thought the board was open to this type of idea right now.
“This is a whole new world for us, for almost every government in the country.
“We have to start looking at working together as a community what’s best for all of us not just what’s best for government or best for the building industry.
“We’re open to almost anything because the world’s changing.
“Our revenues have dropped over a million and a half again in the general fund and a lot of that is from sales tax, the TOT, property taxes we’re expecting to be down, timber tax, we’re still trying to figure out what happened there.
“We received $8,000 this payment when we normally get $150,000, which doesn’t seem big in a budget of $90 million. However, you start adding 150, 150, 150 and pretty soon we’re up to a million and then we’re talking a lot of positions and huge impacts to the community.
“When we lay off people a lot of people say ‘well they’re government workers’ but they’re still workers that spend money in your store, add additions to their homes, so they help the economy too.
“Whether they’re government, Forest Service workers, whatever, they’re a big part of our local economy.”
After hearing Ingstad’s thoughts, a couple of the contractors volunteered to work on a presentation to give to the budget committee.
The CAO said the county was also working on a user friendly website.
“We’ve taken the approach that its not going to be a government website, it’s going to be a portal for whatever you’re looking for.
“If you’re looking to bring a business in we’re gonna try to direct you to where you should go to get assistance.”
“If you’re looking for lodging you’ll find it. If you’re looking for building permitting you’ll find it.
“A lot of governments took the position ‘we’re just a government, we’re just going to do what we do on our website, and if you’re looking for something else, you’re not going to find where to go from our site.
“We’ve taken the approach that we’re all in this together and if the community doesn’t do well, the county doesn’t do well, the government doesn’t do well.”
Earlier in the meeting, Wilson said the planning and building website had been worked on a lot to make the General Plan update process transparent and this website would be combined with the county’s for maximum convenience.
As this section of the meeting came to a close one contractor commented, “I think any process and any government can probably have an increase in efficiency but having come from a much, much, larger county I can tell you that working here is a pleasure compared to something like Las Angeles or being involved with postal permits.
“It’s phenomenal to know someone actually answers the phone when you call.
“It’s really a pleasure to work in a county where you know who you have to deal with and the process that you understand, it’s not a mystery.
“You should be very proud that we can do that here, you can’t in other places.”
Further articles on other topics discussed at the meeting like new building and sewage regulations will appear in next week’s paper.
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