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Clark County: Department merger would save money

Springfield says departments already efficient, focus must be on finishing 9-1-1 dispatch merger.

The city of Springfield and Clark County continue to work on establishing a combined 9-1-1 dispatch service, following other consolidation efforts with their recreation and health departments.

The building regulation departments could be next.

County commissioners said they support it, especially in light of declining populations, tight budgets and fewer inspections.

“I’d like to see us do some consolidation and eliminate duplication. I think we need to look at all areas of government and do things in the 21st century instead of the way we’ve always operated,” County Commissioner John Detrick said.

But Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said finishing the dispatch center is the No. 1 priority and the any discussions of other consolidations are off the table.

And such a move in the building departments might not save money, he said, because the operations are efficient now.

“Dispatch has the most benefit to the most people and can directly affect the public safety and health of our citizens,” he said. “That should be our priority right now. I don’t want to even start another process until that one is complete. It’s going to take us sometime into 2015 if all things go smoothly.”

Duplicated services?

The building departments work includes inspecting new construction, renovations and repairs to enforce state building codes, as well as varying levels of regulating contractors.

The idea of combining the departments has been discussed for decades and then in 2011 county staff researched it more extensively.

Clark County’s building department has seven employees — four inspectors, two administrative assistants and a chief building official. It performed about 2,800 inspections last year and operates on an annual budget of about $400,000.

The city has 3.5 employees in the building regulations department — a chief building official, two inspectors and an administrative assistant whose time is split with other divisions. It averages about 2,000 inspections per year and has a budget of about $300,000 a year.

Local governments follow a state Residential Building Code and the Ohio Building Code. In addition, the city has ordinances that also dictate what contractors can do.

But building departments must enforce state code, said Matthew Mullins, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Commerce.

“They all enforce the same code. There is flexibility in how local jurisdictions choose to operate. But they can’t enforce something that conflicts with the state building code,” Mullins said.

One-stop shop

In 2011 the Clark County Community Development Department was asked to draft a proposal to show that a combined building department was feasible.

The research found that a one-stop shop at the Springview Government Center would save money and wouldn’t lead to job cuts or impact employee wages, Clark County Community Development Department Director Tom Hale said.

That report showed it was a good time to consolidate, he said, because of the economy, decline in building inspections and reduction in staffing due to retirements.

There’s no need for separate building departments, Hale said.

“Economically, what we’ve been experiencing the last five years with the roller coaster ride of development and there were some projected retirements in both departments, it just seemed logical that a constituent or a customer or contractor or anybody would be able to go to one place and get inspections, (permits and other services) in one location,” he said.

Clark County Commissioners Detrick, Rick Lohnes and David Hartley said they’re in favor of it.

Lohnes, who is one of the leaders working on the combined dispatch, said officials should consolidate more services.

“It’s really silly that we don’t,” Lohnes said.

Hartley believes the city and county will eventually consolidate their building departments.

Relations between the two jurisdictions have improved in recent years, he said, and other factors may dictate that they move in that direction.

“At some point I think we will have to do it and I think we can,” Hartley said.

Talks stopped

In 2011 city officials said a merger wasn’t advantageous at the time, County Administrator Nathan Kennedy said, and talks haven’t resumed since then.

“We just couldn’t work through the details,” Bodenmiller said.

Both departments previously had more employees, but have been reduced due to budget cuts.

That means combining them might not save money.

“It’s an extremely efficient operation,” Bodenmiller said. “There’s likely not a cost advantage to a combination from the city’s perspective.”

A combined building regulations department also might not help economic development, Bodenmiller said, because developers right now only have to deal with the city or the county. That’s different from other areas that have many different suburbs.

“It’s one or the other here,” Bodenmiller said.

Merging any two departments takes a lot of work, Kennedy said, and all the regulations each are governed by must be taken into account.

“You’ve got Ohio Revised Code and charter issues, you’ve got employees who are on different pay scales with slightly different benefits. You have to decide operationally how’s it’s going to look, who’s going to run it, the costs, who reimburses who,” Kennedy said.

The combined 9-1-1 dispatch operation is still in the planning phase, including examining how the operation will be funded and addressing two unions and their different contracts.

“There are a lot of details to be worked through, but it’s still going positively,” Bodenmiller said.

Cooperation and collaboration

The Greater Ohio Policy Center encourages cooperation and collaboration between local governments when possible to improve efficiency, said associate director Alison Goebel. They don’t believe wholesale consolidation is necessary, but in certain situations it is possible.

A building department consolidation would create more standardization for the entire county, Goebel said, and could spur economic development.

“The less layers of government they have to work through, the more willing they are to locate or expand somewhere,” Goebel said.

The planned combined 9-1-1 dispatch is a great precedent, she said, and shows there may be other opportunities the city and county could explore. The average resident doesn’t care who provides certain services as long as the job is getting done, she said.

The Building Industry Association of Clark County, a nonprofit trade organization representing home builders and contractors, supports consolidating the building regulations department, Director Kent Sherry said.

The combined service would allow for inspections to be streamlined, he said, and create an organized fee structure and rules for contractors.

“It would be good for the city and the county to work more closely in those areas,” Sherry said.

A consolidation would likely make it simpler for applicants, City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill said. He’s open to discussing combining the city and county services.

“I thought we were really, really close (previously),” O’Neill said. “I think any consolidation that’s going to streamline the process would be good.”

Bob Warren, owner of Hauck Bros. Inc. Heating and Cooling, said he sees a lot of advantages to a unified program, including standardized requirements.

“As contractors, we would be dealing with one agency, just like we do with the health department,” he said.

One department would eliminate different requirements, such as the county wanting contractors to provide submittals or product and material data, Warren said, or avoid delays when permits are sent to the wrong department because contractors aren’t sure if a street is in the city or county.

“It would be a big help to the contractors and I think it would save money for the city and the county,” he said.

Municipalities across Ohio are finding ways to streamline government, Goebel said.

“Springfield and Clark County aren’t alone,” she said. “There are a lot of resources that weren’t available even three years ago provided by the state and other regional groups.”

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