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Jackson code enforcement audit returns favorable results

fr audit“All OK — but it could be better” seemed to be the message from a report the Jackson County Board of Commissioners ordered after suspicion surfaced this spring that the county’s Permitting and Code Enforcement Department wasn’t adequately carrying out the responsibilities it’s tasked with.

“Maybe not everything’s quite as broke as some folks thought it was, but you want to raise the bar further,” said Richard Smith, a partner at Benchmark Planning, the Charlotte-based firm that completed the report. 

Though Smith and his architect Pete Bogel made a number of recommendations for improvement — everything from restructuring the chain of command to improving technological systems — the overall tone was positive, with phrases such as “really phenomenal,” “working really well,” and “to be commended” peppering the two-hour presentation. There have been mistakes and confusion over who’s responsible for what, Smith said, but, “We felt like the adjustments had been made there and we don’t need to comment further on that.”

 

Combating silo syndrome

Instead of concentrating on the mistakes that triggered the audit, Smith’s presentation focused on how Jackson might rethink its planning and permitting/code enforcement offices to forestall such problems in the future. 

“A lot of time what you run into when you’re dealing with building inspections and you’re dealing with planning is they tend to operate in silos. They tend to operate isolated,” said Smith, whose work experience includes positions as both a town and county planning director. 

In Jackson County, Smith said, that problem is further compounded by how responsibilities are divided between planning and permitting/code enforcement. In most counties, he said, the planning department deals with zoning and planning ordinances originating at the county level, while permitting and code enforcement deals with state building regulations. In Jackson County, those functions are jumbled, with some ordinance-based responsibilities falling to permitting and code enforcement and others going to planning. That opens the door to confusion about the division of labor between the two offices. 

“Duties that are planning duties need to be transferred back to the planning office,” Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said in a follow-up interview. “There needs to be all planning functions happening in the planning office with no planning functions happening in the permitting office.”

Currently, the planning office has only four positions — with just two of them currently staffed — while 18 people work in the permitting and code enforcement office. 

Once the positions are filled and responsibilities juggled to the departments where they best belong, Smith said, the county should find a way to unite the two departments so the “silo effect” doesn’t continue to be a problem. Namely, he said, the two departments should be physically located next to each other, and the county should hire an upper-level position to which the directors of each department would each report. That position would essentially be an assistant county manager. 

Both of those propositions are expensive ones, commissioners said, though the county does have a new health department building on its short list of desired capital projects. If such a building materializes, that might be a good opportunity to co-locate planning and permitting/code enforcement, McMahan said. 

But commissioners seemed to balk at the idea of adding a new management-level position. 

“That’s a chunk of change to do,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene. 

The more likely course of action will be for commissioners to finish the hiring process for a new county planning director — the board will interview the top three candidates this week — with an eye towards picking someone who might be able to unite the two departments. 

“I hope that we can potentially restructure with the new director of planning serving as that person that will be in charge of both planning and oversight of the code enforcement office,” McMahan said. 

Smith told commissioners that it looks like at least one of the three candidates has the skills necessary to do both jobs but cautioned them against relying on that option. 

“There’s very few planning directors I know that want to have building inspection under their charge,” said Smith. 

 

Streamlining the process

Other improvements, the report said, could be done much more cheaply. For instance, Benchmark advised commissioners to look at consolidating its planning ordinances to make them easier for both developers and enforcers to interpret. 

Currently, county planning regulations are spread out over 18 different ordinances. Add the municipal ordinances of Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills to that — the county and its municipalities have an agreement that county staff will provide planning and permitting/code enforcement services for the municipalities — and you’ve got a web of regulation that can be difficult for permit-seekers to navigate. Benchmark suggested pulling all 18 ordinances — and perhaps the municipal ordinances as well, with the understanding that the municipalities would be able to change their rules at any time — under one, larger ordinance just to make things easier. 

“As an architect, if I was coming into your community with the 18 different ordinances you have out there, it would be hard for me to find out what the rules are so I can follow them,” said Bogel.

Similarly, the report said, the county should seek to make its Sylva and Cashiers offices “one-stop shops” for builders’ needs. That means not only seeking to put planning and permitting/code enforcement under the same roof, but also pulling in staff from environmental health, who conduct inspections for structures such as wells and septic tanks.  

The report also recommended that commissioners review the price tags on permit fees in Jackson County. They’re too low, Smith and Bogel said, with Jackson’s permitting and code enforcement department getting back just 36.6 percent of its cost of doing business from permit fees. Contrast that to Macon County, which recoups 75.4 percent of its cost, or Haywood, which gets back 79.6 percent, and it’s clear that Jackson needs to take a look at its fee structure, Bogel said. 

“There is a gap. There is a big gap here,” Bogel said. “Moving permitting fees more toward a user fee and less toward it being paid by the citizens of the county can be a good move.” 

Elders, however, countered that the gap is probably not as large as the numbers indicate. For one thing, every county structures its fees differently, and in Jackson County fire inspections are a free service provided by the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department. In Macon County, they’re done by the fire marshall’s office and therefore not calculated in the cost recoupment number. In addition, Jackson is the only one of the western counties to have a second office for Permitting and Code Enforcement. Elders operates a satellite office in Cashiers, and it takes up one-third to one-half of his budget to keep it open. 

“We’re generally in the ballpark with Haywood and Macon counties,” Elders said, “especially with single family homes. We may need to look at our larger commercial jobs.” 

The decision to change permit fees, though, resides with commissioners, Elders said. Past boards have encouraged him to keep them as low as possible. 

“That’s something that would come from the board,” Elders said. “That’s not a decision I would make.” 

 

Changing public perception

While these concrete changes could go a long way toward creating a more effective planning and permitting/code enforcement unit, Smith said, the intangibles might prove Jackson’s biggest challenge in getting the two departments back on track. 

Results of Benchmark’s survey of county commission and planning board members indicated that the county’s facing a significant public perception that favoritism is a problem in the permitting and code enforcement department. Of the 14 board members who completed the survey, five said that favoritism is at play in how services are administered when it comes to county planning, permitting and enforcement. Two of them said that favoritism is the most important issue facing the permitting and code enforcement department. 

Written responses to the question about favoritism’s role supported a view that even those who don’t believe favoritism exists believe that the perception it’s there is a big problem. 

“There is a perception that there is favoritism — I have not seen evidence of such, but perception is strong,” wrote one respondent.

 “Good ‘ol boy system is at play,” wrote another.

If the county is going to counter that perception, Smith said, it needs to be intentional about it. He recommended that the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department post a regular report online, detailing who’s applied for what permits. 

“It lets folks know, ‘Look, we don’t have anything to hide,’” Smith said. 

McMahan was favorable to that idea, speculating that a monthly report published online might be the way to go. Such a report could list which permits were issued, who applied for them and who is listed as the general contractor. 

“I think that’s a way that you can start to deal with the perception issue and people can see what’s out there,” McMahan said. “Right now the general public doesn’t have access to that unless they specifically go in and try to pull those records.” 

McMahan said that he was satisfied with the report results, adding that he felt the information and peace of mind stemming from putting to rest any unwarranted worries about the departments’ function were well worth the report’s $15,350 price tag. 

Commissioner Charles Elders, however, disagreed, saying that nothing in the report was new to him and that he “just regret(s) that we spent 15-plus thousand dollars to find out what we already knew.”

Greene, however, agreed with McMahan. Knowing the score is better than allowing rumors to circulate without knowing whether they’re true, she said. 

“I hope this report has a couple of things that will allay some of the concerns of the public about whether they think planning and code enforcement is doing its job,” she said. 

“It’s been a long summer. Glad it’s over,” Tony Elders said. “We are going to have to keep working toward addressing the perception some folks have. I don’t know we’ll ever change all of them, but I just encourage anybody that has any question to come in and talk to me.”

 

The backstory

The Jackson County Commissioners’ decision to pay for an audit of its Permitting and Code Enforcement Department — the scope was later expanded to include the Planning Department, as the two entities work closely with each other — had multiple points of origin. 

First, there was the question of whose job it is to inspect the R-5000 road project, which has made negative news several times over the past year for issues including excessive erosion and aims to connect N.C. 116 and N.C. 107, running through the Southwestern Community College campus. Originally, Permitting and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders said it was not his job to inspect the road, though he later reversed his position. 

Then, during former County Planner Gerald Green’s last days working for the county — Green resigned this spring to take a planning job in Knoxville — it came out that Elders had not been enforcing the county’s steep slopes ordinance. Elders said that enforcement of the ordinances was the planning department’s responsibility, while Green contended it was permitting and code enforcement’s job. The argument made Green’s last planning board meeting in May a contentious one.

Green and Elders also disagreed about the legality of construction on a mountainside in Dillsboro. The slope was at about a 35 percent grade, enough to cause the county’s steep slope regulations to kick in. But Elders argued that the property, platted in 1991, was grandfathered in and didn’t have to comply with the 2007 Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance. Green disagreed, pointing out at his last planning board meeting that the property was divided into two parcels with a new plat submitted in 2013. That should have caused the steep slope ordinance to apply. Elders countered that the 2013 plat was never filed with the register of deeds, so he’d referred to the 1991 plat. 

Questions about Elders’ office didn’t stop there. Since 2011, state law has required people overseeing construction activities without a general contractor’s license to submit an affidavit showing why they qualify for one of the exemptions to the general state requirement that people overseeing construction projects worth more than $30,000 hold a license. 

However, Elders had not been collecting the affidavits. 

According to a report on Permitting and Code Enforcement’s activities recently completed by Charlotte-based Benchmark Planning, there was no nefarious intent or dereliction of duty related to these incidents. Benchmark’s Richard Smith told commissioners that, while errors have been made, the issues have been addressed and fixed. 

Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan agreed with that assessment. 

“I haven’t seen evidence where somebody intentionally tried to ignore a local ordinance or state law — no, I haven’t seen that,” McMahan said. “There’s been some [items overlooked]. There have been some decisions probably made just out of ignorance of the law.”

With Benchmark’s report now finished, commissioners will consider which of their recommendations to implement to prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future.

 

 

By the numbers

• 83 percent of 58 members of the public completing a survey rated the quality of service in Permitting and Code Enforcement as “excellent” or “good.”

• 79 percent of 62 public respondents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department is usually responsive and helpful. 

• 69 percent of 62 public respondents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that the Planning Department is usually responsive and helpful. 

• 19 of 32 public respondents to whom the question applied said application of the county’s steep slope ordinance is either “always” or “generally” consistent. 46 percent said they dealt with Permitting and Code Enforcement for items related to the steep slope ordinance, 15 percent said they dealt with Planning and 38 percent said they dealt with both departments. 

• 58 percent of county commission and planning board members surveyed said the most common complaint they heard related to the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department was erosion control issues or lack of enforcement. The most common complaint related to the Planning Department was lack of staffing, mentioned by 27 percent of respondents. The second most common complaint, at 20 percent, was “none.”

• 36 percent of board members said they believed favoritism was an issue in how Jackson’s development services are offered and enforced. 

• 67 percent of board members said coordination between Planning and Permitting and Code Enforcement has not been successful. 

Source: Permitting and Code Enforcement Assessment Report by Benchmark Planning. 

 

The recommendations

Benchmark Planning’s audit of Jackson County’s permitting and code enforcement and planning departments returned the following suggestions for improvement: 

• Fill the two vacant positions in planning. 

• Move ordinance-related responsibilities from permitting and code enforcement to planning. 

• Hire an assistant county manager to oversee both divisions. 

• Locate the two departments together physically and move environmental health staff to those locations to create a one-stop shop for permit-seekers. 

• Review staffing levels of the two departments annually. 

• Update software used by the departments. 

• Unlock Internet search functions on tablets used by inspectors. 

• Consolidate the county’s 18 development ordinances into one Land Development Ordinance. 

• Amend ordinances as necessary to clarify that the planning department is responsible for enforcing county ordinances. 

• Provide regular reports to the public on the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department’s activities. 

• Consider increasing permit fees. 

• Increase training opportunities for staff and board members. 

 

Read the report

The full report from Benchmark Planning’s audit on Jackson County’s Permitting and Code Enforcement Department and Planning Department is online at http://bit.ly/1R14aAu.

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