By Jeff Keeling
To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it isn’t easy working for a city building and codes department – but that fact should never serve as an excuse for inconsistent practices or poor customer service.
Johnson City commissioners spent a good bit of time Monday night discussing the building department’s past and future, and its pros and cons, with Development Services Director Angie Carrier. A recent survey of developers provided fruitful ground, but anyone who has paid much attention to development in Johnson City over the years would probably acknowledge there’s a grain of truth to the all-too-common refrain that the city can be a frustrating place to do business.
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories myself. I tend to take them with a grain of salt, because as Vice Mayor Clayton Stout noted Monday, the building process is by its nature a frustrating one. But taken as a whole, those horror stories suggest that in some legitimate ways, Johnson City is, indeed, a frustrating place to do business.
Thankfully, commissioners were measured in their conversation with Carrier, such that I felt only a slight temptation to offer her my bicycle helmet for protection. And thankfully, they seemed ready to attribute the weaknesses that need addressing to a combination of factors – some of which will largely be up to them to address.
My takeaway from the conversation suggests the city needs to focus on a handful of key points to improve a 37 percent “poor experience” rating from survey respondents, which Commissioner Jenny Brock pressed Carrier to explain. Carrier demurred, somewhat to Brock’s consternation, saying a myriad of factors can create that bad impression. (In the department’s defense, and to Stout’s point, that percentage is probably never going to get real low because some folks just like to complain about things.)
The first point is pretty much all on the commission. The Development Department is still conducting its business largely on paper. Carrier said that antiquated process causes a lot of headaches, delays and inefficiency. Carrier needs to present a request for the best, most cost-effective software program available, and then the commission needs to suck it up and approve its acquisition. It should more than pay for itself, and quickly.
The second point is a thorny one to address, but address it the city must if it wants to maximize growth and development while maintaining safe, reasonable, fair codes and enforcement. Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin put it plainly in this statement to Carrier early in the discussion: “I do hope we’re looking very carefully at demeanor.”
The department has several openings, and the people who fill those need to do a much better job of projecting to developers a “let’s talk about how the city can work with you to make your project succeed” when issues arise during projects, as they invariably do. As I noted earlier, people like to complain, but the city has got to get folks into those crucial inspector positions who don’t come off as capricious, uncaring, disinterested in a positive resolution to an issue – name the customer service complaint, it’s probably been levied against Johnson City’s building department.
Carrier said she “looked at personality and fit” in a recent round of interviews. That’s good. Beyond that, though it may be difficult to dismiss public sector employees, I honestly cannot argue with Commissioner Jeff Banyas’ assertion last night: “Sometimes it’s a good thing to fire somebody.” Whether that’s warranted within the department I certainly cannot say, but if it is, it should happen. I have worked in environments where justified firings occurred, and in my experience, things got a lot better.
On the flip side, the commission may need to consider adjusting the pay scale in the department. Carrier has had a time trying to find a replacement for retired chief building official Dave Jenny. She said Johnson City’s switch to a retirement plan that includes some employee contributions means finding a top-notch person for the job will require an offer at the high end of Johnson City’s current salary scale, “or higher.”
City Manager Pete Peterson wasn’t kidding when he described it as, “a high stress, hard job” (that) “isn’t the most attractive position we have to recruit for.”
Conversely, as Van Brocklin pointed out, it’s a “hugely important position, particularly if at some point we give that official some leeway to interpret (code issues).”
Speaking of codes, they represent the fourth key point. Most are probably reasonable, but when life safety is accounted for, the city should consider amending areas in which restrictions exceed minimums. Peterson worried about the city’s ISO (fire safety) rating and potential impacts to that. I say this: If some reasonable, safe code changes can reasonably be expected to enhance growth, and the tax revenues from that growth would likely exceed increased insurance costs resulting from a changed ISO rating, change the codes.
Near the discussion’s end, Carrier said, “things are improving.” I hope so. If her department, city management and the commission work together to address the key points they discussed Monday, things should get a lot better. The right software won’t just make builders happy. It should save money in other areas for the city, which could be redirected to salaries.
On the human relations side, people generally want to be liked. If the customer service culture in the department is changing for the better, that change needs to continue and accelerate.
Johnson City has a lot of great things going for it these days, such that continued growth is a good possibility. To the degree that growth attracts people, jobs and further investment, our community has a clear path forward to an improving quality of life – and the luxury to achieve it while keeping our tax rates relatively low. A continuously improving Development Services Department will play a big role in this.