Fee hike overdue

If local builders hadn’t expressly supported a Mesa County proposal to raise the cost of obtaining building permits, would commissioners have raised fees anyway?

It’s an important question because it gets to the heart of our elected leaders’ feelings about the value of government services. There comes a point where undermanned government offices can’t meet demand for the services they’re supposed to provide.

Such is the case with the county’s building department. When the local economy took a nosedive in 2010, the department was cut in half. Reductions made sense at the time because building activity had dropped off. But now that construction is showing signs of a rebound, the department can’t process permits in a timely manner. Government inefficiency is a drag on growth.

So builders decided they’d rather pay a premium for quicker turnarounds than to wait up to three weeks longer than necessary. They told commissioners Monday to raise fees with the hope that the additional revenue will improve efficiency by allowing more inspectors and other personnel to be hired.

Support from industry made it possible to support fee increases, Commissioner Rose Pugliese said. But even without builders essentially giving commissioners permission to raise fees, the justification to do so has been there all along. Fees have been flat since 1988, putting Mesa County well below what neighboring counties charge. In fact, a 27-percent hike puts Mesa County on par with Pueblo County but still significantly below what Montrose and Garfield Counties charge.

County officials began discussing a rate adjustment in November after meeting with home builders and contractors associations. The message was clear: A county that doesn’t have an efficient, responsive building department effectively says it’s not open for business.

The big question is how many other undermanned departments are reinforcing a negative impression of the county? When the county clerk’s office consolidated its motor vehicle division from three offices to one, customer lines grew along with grumbling about wait times. Sheila Reiner, the elected court and recorder, offered a small fee increase of her own to encourage online tag renewals and cut down on in-person transactions. Commissioners rejected that idea even though it was similar in concept to the building fee hike — adjusting customer costs to improve efficiency and better serve the public.

Kudos to the county officials who conducted a review that led to the discovery of the abnormally low fees. But it sounds as if the county would have muddled along with slow permitting had it not been for the builders themselves providing some context to commissioners about how inefficiency is hurting their bottom line.

There’s a lesson there — adherence to a low-tax, low-fee philosophy can harm those government is supposed to serve.

There’s one unresolved issue still dangling from the commissioners’ stranger-than-fiction vote on Monday. Once the new fees go into effect, they could result in $300,000 or more in new revenues. But there’s no promise that the county will plow the new money into the building department. We suggest commissioners make that commitment express since they hinted they wouldn’t have approved the hikes without the endorsement of builders.


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