The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Company to step up code compliance role after town renews contract

By Rich Pollack

    It has taken more than a year, but Highland Beach finally ended its search for a full-time code compliance officer.
    Not everyone on the Town Commission, however, agrees with how the decision to end the search was made.
    In a 3-2 vote last month, the commission approved renewing its contract with SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company providing building-inspection services to the town for almost a decade.
    Under the new agreement, SAFEbuilt will add a full-time residential inspection specialist, who will essentially serve as a code compliance officer. In addition, the company will provide a building permit technician and a part-time inspector and give the town access to its planning services.
    In exchange, Highland Beach will pay the company 60 percent of permit fees over five years up to the first $833,333 collected and 50 percent thereafter.
    For the past several months, the town’s Police Department and the building department’s office manager handled code compliance.
    “Financially speaking, this proposal should reduce the overall cost of operating the building department by a substantial amount,” Town Manager Valerie Oakes wrote in a memo to the commission.
    Two commission members, however, questioned the wisdom of continuing to relinquish control of the building department to an outside firm, with one asking why town officials were not following a previous commission request to fill the code compliance officer position in-house.
    “We need our own building department,” said Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker, who has been critical of the services provided by SAFEbuilt. “We don’t need a company from out of town.”
    Commissioner Elyse Riesa agreed.
    “Do we as a community want to give away our building department during a meeting?” she asked. “I say ‘No.’ ”
    Zelniker also questioned the propriety of the town staff not hiring an in-house inspector after the commission approved funding for the position in the current budget.
    In response, Vice Mayor Bill Weitz pointed out Oakes had advertised the position and went as far as offering it, but had to rescind the offer after a failed background check.  
    “There was no intent on the part of the town manager to change the commission’s decision,” he said.
    Weitz said he had been critical of how the building department was functioning under SAFEbuilt in the past, but had seen the company correct the issues he had with performance.
    “A year ago, I was outspoken against outsourcing, but things have changed,” he said.
    In casting his vote in favor of renewing the contract with SAFEbuilt, Mayor Carl Feldman said he thinks the company had been responsive to the town and that outsourcing the building function would not equate to a loss of control.
    “It’s completely obvious we’re trying to do the best for the town,” he said.
    Oakes said the town has developed a strong relationship with SAFEbuilt and executives with the company have been very responsive to the town’s needs and concerns.
    “They have immediately addressed every issue that has come up,” she said. “We’re on the same page and have a shared vision for the building department.”
    In addition to providing personnel and plan review services, SAFEbuilt is working with the town to draft a code compliance policy. The company is also working with the town to make it possible for building department and code enforcement functions to be handled electronically.
Commissioners gave tentative approval last month to a system that will allow builders or homeowners eventually to file for building permits online and pay associated fees. They will also be able to track their plans through the process electronically and do a variety of research functions on specific parcels.
The new system will also make it possible for residents to electronically file a complaint with the code compliance department.

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