Traverse City News and Events

County To Consider Outsourcing All Inspections

Feb. 16, 2015

Grand Traverse County commissioners reviewing cost-cutting options for the county’s soil erosion department will discuss a proposal Wednesday to privatize all county inspections, including soil erosion, building, mechanical, electrical and plumbing.

Commissioner Dr. Dan Lathrop invited Associated Government Services (AGS), a Richland-based company specializing in government contract services, to give a presentation on outsourcing county inspections at the board’s Ways & Means committee meeting. AGS provides contract inspections for Benzie County, among 22 Michigan municipalities listed on the company’s website.

A county request for proposal (RFP) for soil erosion inspections was posted last month to help provide a cost comparison for services for commissioners, but failed to generate any bids by last Friday’s deadline. Director of Construction Code Bruce Remai says while AGS was not interested in bidding on soil erosion inspections as a stand-alone service, the company is willing to contract for all county inspections as a package.

“The money is in the building codes side of things,” says Remai, whose department includes seven inspectors handling building, electrical, mechanical and plumbing inspections and plan reviews, plus two part-time soil erosion inspectors and clerical staff. “Usually with a contractor, there is a fee being charged for each visit or inspection. It’s a different model.”

Remai has submitted three proposals for review to commissioners that would raise permit and inspection fees and restructure staffing hours to make soil erosion more revenue-neutral. The building codes side of the department is already self-sufficient and covers its own costs. County Administrator Dave Benda confirms the department is “self-sustaining.”

Some commissioners say they were surprised to see the presentation on this week’s agenda.

“I have definite reservations about pushing into departments that are self-sustaining,” says Commissioner Carol Crawford. “We need to start with the departments that draw on the general fund. That’s where we’re going to make the most impact on the budget.”

Commissioner Bob Johnson says he’s open to “listening to the presentation” by AGS, but believes the proposal “is not what was originally talked about” by the board. “To me, the better route is to increase user fees (for soil erosion) and close that gap in the general fund,” Johnson says. “You’d have to work hard to convince me right now we can’t fix this in-house."

Bill Packer, who owns Packer Builders and sits on the executive committee of the Home Builders Association of the Grand Traverse Area, says he plans to encourage builders and developers to attend Wednesday’s meeting to support keeping county inspections in-house.

“Our experience with subcontractors is they’re not always there when you need them…and there’s a financial incentive to nitpick and not pass you for inspections,” says Packer. “We have a good system in place now. It's revenue neutral. We have a good rapport with the inspectors. Why would we change that?”

Commissioner Christine Maxbauer tells The Ticker she supports the invitation by Lathrop (who could not be reached for comment for this story) to have AGS appear Wednesday. Maxbauer says she sees the primary focus of the discussion not on outsourcing, but rather “educating the board” on different approaches to structuring inspections. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to contract out,” she says. “It could mean we look seriously at having our own inspectors cross-trained (between soil erosion and building codes). That’s what AGS does. That’s the direction I really think we’re headed.”

Whatever commissioners decide regarding building codes, the board will have to make a decision soon regarding the soil erosion staffing portion of the equation. Soil erosion inspector Pete Bruski has announced his retirement effective February 27; his departure will leave just one part-time soil erosion inspector on the county payroll beginning March 2. Expanding that inspector's hours to full-time and/or hiring additional inspectors will require the approval of commissioners, according to Benda.

“Because of the questions the board has thrown out about contracting for soil erosion inspections...we’re going to give them an update (Wednesday) and ask them how they'd like to proceed," he says. 

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