Builders raise questions as Macon-Bibb plans to outsource permitting, inspections


Liz Fabian

Nearly three dozen building contractors gathered Feb 3 at the Macon-Bibb County Government Center to talk with SAFEbuilt Georgia LLC which has agreed to take over local building permits and inspections if commissioners approve the proposal.

About three dozen builders and contractors came seeking answers Monday about Macon-Bibb County’s plan to outsource building inspections.

Mayor Robert Reichert hosted a “meet and greet” with SAFEbuilt Georgia LLC, which has been serving as a temporary independent contractor for the county since May.

“The main thing we want to get to is to kind of give SAFEbuilt an opportunity to chat with you to give you a chance to share concerns, ideas or thoughts,” Reichert said. “We’re outsourcing and some people say, ‘Oh!’… and others think it’s a good idea.”

Over the past nine months, SAFEbuilt has had a chance to get to know the community and figure out how to make the business development services department more efficiently, the mayor said.

Those gathered in Commission Chambers of the Government Center had plenty of questions for the company that has agreed to take over the county’s building and remodeling plan reviews and inspections.

In recent months, county manager Keith Moffett has been studying the operation of the business development services department, which Reichert said was hastily compiled with three separate responsibilities once Macon consolidated with Bibb County in 2014.

Under a new reorganization, the SAFEBuilt company will oversee one of those duties – construction inspections and permitting.

County workers would retain licensing and code enforcement duties with a “strong emphasis on blight and neighborhood revitalization,” Moffett said last month.

Tax Commissioner Wade McCord is willing to take on business licensing duties through online renewals, the mayor said.

“Dang! Did you ever think Macon would come into the 21st Century and that you can do it online?” Reichert exclaimed.

The tax commissioner’s office would collect the fees for alcohol licenses and occupation tax.

The changes would eliminate 11 county positions.

“Five of those are vacant so we would have to find a home for 6 employees and beef up code enforcement for those who don’t transition to the private company,” Moffett said. “My job is to make sure we have a place in this government.”

Moffett said there would be no loss in benefits or pay.

Opportunities for those displaced workers are available in the code enforcement and facilities departments, he said.

According to its website, SAFEbuilt helps local governments save money while improving service and community satisfaction.

But only one of the county’s current business clients praised the way SAFEbuilt has been working during the trial consulting phase.

Thom Phillips, owner of BAP Security, said he was skeptical at first when he learned a private company was working in the county office, but after he “worked through some issues” he found the staff to be quite intelligent.

“And have an attitude of customer service like Neiman Marcus,” Phillips said. “It’s the most refreshing thing that I could imagine in this line of work. It’s been an awesome pleasure for us.”

Tim Thornton, one of the partners in the Central City Commons development between Poplar, Plum and First and Second Streets, had a different experience.

“This in-between time has been a nightmare with a lot of back-and-forth,” Thornton said.

Building contractor Warren Selby Jr., who was on a study committee years ago to streamline the building department process, is hopeful that a new start will solve some of the problems he’s observed.

“The system is broken in a number of ways and it’s just time to fix it,” Selby said. “We all like progress but we don’t like change.”

Reichert said there are four main areas to consider to improve the department:  public safety, leeway in the code to allow for adaptive reuse of buildings, efficiency and cost.

“You can’t have adaptive reuse if the cost is too expensive,” Reichert said.

SAFEbuilt representatives stressed the importance of a checklist so applicants will know exactly what they need to submit to speed up the approval process.

Don Wilkins, a building official with SAFEbuilt, said it typically takes about 5 days for approvals, 20 days for a major project and a maximum of about 30 days. They also will  enact electronic plan reviews, he said.

One woman who attended the meeting said she’s been waiting well over a month for approval for her project.

The county also is considering reconstituting the appeals board, which is made up of local people within the industry.

Some contractors seemed concerned about losing the personal relationships they’ve established with current inspectors as the company will likely bring in new employees.

Wilkins told the crowd: “My expectation of staff… your job is to be an educator first and a reluctant regulator.”

SAFEbuilt will have the ability to hire and fire workers under the agreement which calls for the company to be paid 60 percent of building and trade permit fees and plan review fees, which is estimated to total a net of at least $130,000 to $150,000 each year after expenses, according to the sample contract submitted. Other hourly expenses for additional inspections range from $75 – $150 per hour.

Moffett said there are no immediate plans to raise fees.

“There’s a lot of rumors out there. This is not my intention to change any fees,” Moffett said. We’re going to look at fees in the coming months to see if we’re comparable to other communities.”

If the proposal is approved by committee next week, commissioners could vote on the contract Feb. 18 which would allow SAFEbuilt to take over in early March.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]