On Monday, Sept. 20, the Watertown City Council convened for a special meeting regarding the city’s building permit/inspection system, which is reportedly slow in handling requests. The system also required re-examination as the partnership with Delano’s inspection team is being terminated later this year.
The meeting started out with an open forum, which had one speaker: Kyle Jarvis, owner of Luce Line Company and the Watertown Chamber president. While he stated he agreed the current system is certainly flawed, one of the best aspects of it is the ability to directly call Scott Dornfeld, building official. Jarvis’s main request was to not completely dismantle the current system of someone being specialized and then outsourcing, but to try and improve the current system to make it more efficient.
According to Jared Shephard, city attorney, this meeting was called by council members Mike Walters and Dan Schuette. On the agenda were two different proposals: Either approve the hiring of a full time building official, similar to Dornfeld; or outsource the work to a building and inspection company. These options would both solve the preceived efficiency issue, as part of the reason the partnership was terminated was the fact that both Delano and Watertown are growing quite fast, according to officials.
It’s important to note that while this was a special meeting, this isn’t a new issue. As part of the Aug. 10 work session, staff were directed to look into both these options and figure out why there was a lag in response time for building and inspection permits. Shane Fineran, the previous administrator, was even instructed to go out to quote the cost of services before his departure in May.
Schuette started off, saying that the current system clearly wasn’t working out, especially with the partnership dissolving. While he said that a decision had to be made soon, he noted it was still important to weigh the pros and cons of every situation.
Walters had done quite a bit of personal research. His findings indicated that 80 percent of the permits for Watertown took longer that three weeks to fully process, while for other cities in the area the average was 10 days, and sometimes lower depending on the project. Walters also expressed an interest for outsourcing the work, since the position would cost the city $120,000 per year, according to his estimate.
Both council members emphasized that current projects would be finished by Delano officials, per their agreement, and anything new would be handled by whoever is brought in to do so.
Council member Lindsay Guetzkow noted that building and inspection permits have been a challenge since the hail storm of 2019, and said the coronavirus pandemic didn’t do anyone any favors in trying to build. She also stated that the council and staff have been aware of the backlog of permits, and have been working to find a solution.
“We need to know our needs and what residents need before we take action,” she said.
During public comment, many residents asked questions about what process is typical for cities the size of Watertown; where the slow down is coming from;and more specifics on what each option would cost. Two representatives of outsource teams were also present: Metro West and MNSpect. MNSpect said they would be able to start by Oct. 1, according to Scott Qualle, president. Metro West works with several cities in the area, and representative Todd Geske was willing to answer questions.
Mayor Steve Washburn, while appreciative of the willingness to answer questions, asked that council stay focused at the task at hand - making a decision on whether to hire a company or an individual.
Two motions were presented. The first was presented by Walters, a motion to approve the hiring of MNSpect immediately, with the current permits being handled under the current model. He said building codes could be finalized at a later date.
Council members Schuette, Adam Pawelk, and Guetzkow asked for further details, Pawelk in particular asking for information regarding MNSpect’s contract. The response was apparantely unconvincing, leading to further concerns from other council members, especially since residents weren’t able to engage in the discussion.
Washburn said that these issues should have been seen in a formal RFA/RFP. According to Walters, an RFA would not be required for this kind of project, since both companies gave their complete pricing and services.
“I didn’t even know that [Fineran] went and solicited quotes back in May,” Washburn said. “Let’s outline what’s all required.”
After debate between Walters and Washburn regarding the contractors even being present at the meeting, the motion died a second.
Schuette made a different motion, which was fairly complex. The motion was to move the discussion to a later date, while having city staff draft an RFA or RFP for the next meeting on Sept. 28. The document would outline service workload, software and services needs, roles and responsibilities, and who would be in charge of the process regarding building services moving forward. This motion approved unanimously.