2017-11-16 / Front Page

Code dept. study coming

No. 1 source of complaints
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Leelanau County will hire a Northwestern Michigan College researcher to conduct an “external analysis” to make the county’s Construction Code Authority run more efficiently.

The Code department conducts plan reviews, issues permits for construction, and conducts inspections to enforce the state Construction Code, among other tasks.

“This department is the No. 1 source of complaints I hear from constituents,” said District No. 7 Commissioner Melinda Lautner.

District No. 1 Commissioner Tony Ansorge agreed.

“The word I keep getting from contractors is the department is way behind on inspections,” Ansorge said.

But county administrator Chet Janik said he had reviewed the situation and could find no instance in which anyone seeking an inspection from the department needed to wait beyond the three weeks allowed under state guidelines.

Janik also disputed reports that the head of the department, building official Steven Haugen, has put in some 70-hour work weeks and has not been able to take any time off. Janik noted that Haugen is a salaried fulltime employee, not an hourly employee, and has taken plenty of vacation days.

Haugen is apparently seeking a salary increase, however, Janik said. In addition, Haugen earlier this year sought and received authorization from the County Board to hire a fulltime deputy department head who would be professionally qualified to act in his absence. In May, the board authorized creation of the new position, which would pay between $53,321 and $60,117 per year.

Janik acknowledged that several people had applied for the position but opted not to take it because they were making comparable amounts or more in their current positions in the building trades.

He said another prospect for the position was to be interviewed this week, and several others have expressed interest since an article on the opening appeared in the Leelanau Enterprise earlier this month.

At their regular monthly executive meeting on Tuesday morning, county commissioners also expressed skepticism about the need for the Code Authority to require permits and inspections on minor work such as replacing windows, siding homes, and installing new toilets.

According to Janik, Haugen has been able to demonstrate how all the Construction Code requirements his department enforces follow state law.

Those with issues were not mentioned at the meeting.

“Some of the people who come forward with complaints about this department don’t want to use their names because they’re afraid their project will be delayed, or they’ll get dinged in an inspection,” Lautner said.

Ansorge asked Janik how he thinks Haugen feels about having an academic researcher conduct a study of his department’s operations.

“I did not ask him,” Janik said, referring to Haugen. “His office is not leading this charge.”

Ansorge said he did ask Haugen whether he supports the study.

“He (Haugen) supports it,” Ansorge said.

The County Board also backed the study in a recommendation this week that is expected to be officially approved on Tuesday.

The $4,750 contract authorizes Northwestern Michigan College researcher Cathlyn Sommerfield, Ph.D., to conduct a “stakeholder survey” of the county’s Construction Code Authority.

According to an executive document summary, the study “will include an assessment to identify current strengths and potential opportunities for improvement to current internal and external communication practices, including individual internal interviews. A mail survey will include contractors and homeowners.

“Survey results will serve as the basis for planning and implementing a training plan,” according to the summary.

The Construction Code Authority is a “self-funded” department of the county government with expenses covered primarily by fees it collects for services it provides. Before the 2008 recession, the department employed eight fulltime personnel, many of them unionized. Now that the economy has rebounded, the department includes four fulltime personnel and four part-time or contracted personnel.

For 2018, the department’s overall budget was projected to be balanced at $899,216 in revenues and expenditures, up from $758,465 in revenues and expenditures projected for this year.

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