Community development, building inspection handle growth on less funds
by Jessica Loeding
Jul 27, 2012 | 1936 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County Engineer James Steele, left, and Jesse Taylor with Juneau Construction review plans for the parking lot expansion at Georgia Highlands College. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Bartow County Engineer James Steele, left, and Jesse Taylor with Juneau Construction review plans for the parking lot expansion at Georgia Highlands College. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
* Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series that will look at Bartow County's budget by department.

Housed in the lower level of the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center, the three departments with close ties to development keep eyes on the county's growth, albeit with slightly fewer eyes and funds than just five years ago.

In December newly named Community Development Director Lamont Kiser, who leads the engineering department, also took over the county's zoning department along with environmental programs Keep Bartow Beautiful and environmental services. Overseeing 11 full-time employees and one part-time employee among the three areas that comprise Community Development, Kiser operates on engineering and zoning on $931,300. Keep Bartow Beautiful and environmental services funds are taken from the county's non-departmental budget.

Engineering's five full-time employees receive $279,000 -- not including insurance or benefits -- of the department's $497,000 total operating budget. For zoning $185,000 is allotted for the four full-time and one part-time agents out of the $434,300 total.

Staffing has been one of the hardest hit areas for Kiser's department.

"We've had one position has actually transferred to another department that they lost some retirees. Since '09, when we did our first incentivized retirement, we had two retire in '09 from the engineering department, one from the zoning department, and then, most recently, we had the department head for zoning retire. So we've lost four folks in the last three years, and no, we haven't replaced those folks," he said.

Professional fees accounts for the second-largest line item in the engineering budget at $25,000.

"Our in-house staff is constantly working and going out and mapping our pipes and our structures and our stormwater system in general. We have sort of science expertise that we don't have on staff that comes in and helps us with that," Kiser explained. "We have folks on call that will help us with technical problems with plan review if we get pretty big projects that come through like a school or college addition. Some of these bigger projects that are more complex than just a little local corner commercial spot. We utilize their expertise. So the professional services is basically engineering and consulting services that we use that we don't have the in house staff for."

In the zoning area, following salaries comes legal fees at a total of $45,000, which Kiser said is the legal arm's involvement in the department's operations.

"We do quite a bit of cases that involve legal work. ... Not only are the zoning function as the land use and the comprehensive plan and handle all the rezoning and land use map amendments, but we have a code enforcement section with zoning that handles probably 60 to 70 complaints a month," he said. "Most of those complaints get resolved. The property owners either comply, some of them have to pay a fine and several of those have to go through court proceedings, so our county attorney legally guides us through those and represents us for those cases.

"It hasn't happened recently, thank goodness, but there's a lot of litigation potential especially in the rezoning and those kinds of things. ... It's for any kind of legal assistance that we need, any kind of zoning ordinance amendments."

Fuel is another large expense for both departments -- engineering set aside $7,500 and zoning $10,000 -- and maintenance on the combined six vehicles is factored into the budgets, costing engineering $2,500 and zoning $3,500. With gas prices up, Kiser said employees work to cut fuel costs.

"We try to schedule our inspectors in the mornings and try to get them to think ahead and be smart. We sometimes will double up on vehicles and not put all our vehicles on the road," he said.

Other line items for each department include:

* For engineering, $8,000 legal fees; $5,000 R&M office equipment; $2,500 telephone expenses; $3,000 computer software; $1,500 travel and $2,000 education and training.

* For zoning, $2,000 board members,; $4,000 office supplies; $1,000 printing and binding; $2,000 telephone expenses; and $3,500 R&M autos and trucks.

Since taking over engineering in 2006, Kiser said he has seen a decrease in his overall budget, with cuts coming in travel and education along with staffing.

"It's not drastic, it has been gradual, but pretty much since '09 and especially 2010, we have been cutting every year," he said. "When I first took over the engineering department in '06, late '05, the first year that I actually had a budget to deal with, my budget was growing for a couple of years, but now I think this year's budget is about what it was in '06.

"... It hasn't hindered us to the point of rendering us not being able to do our jobs. We've cut in areas where we know we can sustain because of that cut. We've cut in areas like some of our travel expenses and education. ... We have several certified inspectors and that was one area where even though we've cut it back we couldn't just cut it clean because we have to keep everybody certified."

For Kiser, the department's behind-the-scenes involvement in various areas is a point of pride.

"We work with just about every department in the county in some form or fashion. We just may be a technical advisor for a draining problem with parks and rec, or, you know, the road department we work hand in hand with them on stormwater issues and replacing pipes and culverts, sometimes internal consultants where we use our expertise to help them repair things. So there's a lot that don't always make headlines and it's not always big news, but I'm pretty proud of the small staff that we have and the amount that we do and the coordination that we have not only in our county but in other cities as well."

Just down the hall, Bartow County Chief Building Inspector Tony Tidwell leads a department that has also seen drops in funding since 2009.

"Our budget in 2009 was $445,100. In 2010, it was $388,300; in 2011 it was $375,000; and in 2012 it is $375,800," Tidwell said. "Even though our budget has decreased, we have tried and have succeeded in coming in under budget each year."

Responsible for issuing building permits, receiving and reviewing architectural plans for commercial buildings, performing inspections throughout various stages of the construction, building inspection also assists and educates the public with code questions and permitting questions and maintains records of all permits issued, inspections performed, certificate of occupancy/completions issued, complaints, building codes/ordinances, general information handouts for the public and commercial plans.

Four full-time employees receive $205,000 of the department's $375,800 total budget.

After salaries, the department allots the most for legal fees at $10,000.

"Due to the economic downturn, there are many dwellings that have been abandoned, including those that were owner-occupied and those that were renter-occupied. These structures become run down such that they are a fire hazard and nuisance to the area. Many have windows and doors open or broken, which allow children and passersby in the area to enter them. We often receive complaints that the structures are being used for drug-related purposes or being vandalized," Tidwell said. "We make the initial attempts to contact the owner and/or lien holder(s) based on the information we obtain from the Bartow County Tax Assessors office. Many times those owners will comply and make the necessary corrections to be in compliance with county ordinances.

"If the structure is beyond repair they will have the structure torn down and the debris removed from the property. When we cannot locate the owner or do not receive any response, then we turn the information over to the County Attorney for legal action. Many times the attorney has to spend a lot of hours trying to locate and serve notice to the owner. If said owner still cannot be located or still refuses to take corrective action, then the attorney has to file suit and set up a court date."

The process can become costly.

"Another obstacle in locating the rightful owner is when the property is in the process of foreclosure. We have had some situations where it has taken almost a year to get the case in court," Tidwell continued. "As you can imagine, the attorney fees can mount up when something like that occurs. When possible, the courts will allow the county to recover the fees incurred from the owner.

"Legal fees are also incurred when the county attorney has to amend our building ordinance or when we have to consult the attorney for any potential litigation."

Other budgeted items for building inspection includes $7,000 for R&M office equipment; $1,000 for telephone expenses; $1,500 for travel; $1,000 each for education and training and office supplies.

Tidwell said many of the cost-cutting measures have been from the smaller line items. "Due to the recession, we have postponed replacing our older vehicles. We have cut out some of the training and classes that would result in out-of-town travel that would require overnight expenses."

But continued economic woes mean an increased workload for his department.

"Although there are definitely fewer houses and commercial structures being built, our time has been more consumed with responding to an increased number of complaints on dilapidated, unsafe properties," Tidwell said. "Due to the economy, many people are not able to afford the necessary repairs needed to bring their dwelling into compliance. It is difficult to impose fines on someone or condemn their dwelling when they are already in a financial crisis. However, it is necessary for us to enforce this ordinance. All available options for the homeowner are considered when deciding how to best deal with each particular case."