Macon-Bibb commissioners nearly kill deal to privatize building services


Liz Fabian

Macon-Bibb County is considering splitting its Business Development Services Department and outsourcing inspections and permits to SAFEbuilt.

A lengthy debate over privatization of Macon-Bibb County’s building permitting and inspections nearly quashed the proposal Tuesday.

Mayor Robert Reichert was visibly upset after two commissioners voted against transferring management of those operations to SAFEbuilt, a company hired about nine months ago to assess the county’s process.

“God all freaking mighty!” Reichert exclaimed after commissioners Virgil Watkins and Valerie Wynn voted against the plan which failed to reach the majority needed for approval. Three commissioners were absent from Tuesday’s meetings.

Letting his frustration show, Reichert sternly told commissioners he didn’t want to hear anybody complaining when the county has no one to run the permitting and inspections operation once the current contract expires in 18 days.

After SAFEbuilt was hired to do the assessment last April, the county’s building official and plan examiner left. In the interim, SAFEbuilt has been trying to manage the operation with the county’s existing employees.

The restructuring calls for splitting up the current department, turning over business licensing collections to the tax commissioner, beefing up the county’s code enforcement to address blight issues and only transferring permitting and inspections to SAFEbuilt.

Macon-Bibb currently has 10 inspectors, but through streamlining the operation, SAFEbuilt intends to have four inspectors and two permit techs.

Current employees who do not accept offers from SAFEbuilt will be transferred to the code enforcement division to tackle blight or go to work at the facilities department, County Manager Keith Moffett said. Salaries are expected to stay the same pending any changes made due to the ongoing pay scale study.

Moffett said he is deliberately going slowly with the proposed changes to address everyone’s concerns.

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.

The county held a meeting last week to get feedback from building contractors.

Commissioners Wynn and Mallory Jones both spoke of complaints they have heard from local building contractors about the pending changes.

“I had two say they don’t want to move in this direction,” Wynn said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Don’t approve this.’”

The mayor explained that the grumblings about the building department have been ongoing.

“Nobody said that we had a perfect situation before,” Reichert said. “I’m convinced this change is the best moving forward.”

SAFEbuilt has clients across the state and can shift staff to Macon in the event of a major project, Reichert said.

Watkins was not convinced the county would be better off outsourcing the department.

“I’m not really a big fan of the concept of privatization,” Watkins said. “I don’t see a huge financial benefit. I don’t like privatization.”

He questioned the proposed 60-40 split with SAFEbuilt receiving the lion’s share of the fees plus receiving hourly rates for work outside of the normal scope of inspections.

Although the sample contract states net revenue could total $130,000 – $150,000, gross figures discussed Tuesday were much higher. Moffett said that based on revenue averages since 2015, the department takes in about $1.2 million annually which could give Macon-Bibb about $400,000 per year and the rest going to the company, which will be paying salaries and other expenses in running the department.

The contract has a 90-day termination notice which means either entity can back out of the agreement.

SAFEbuilt’s Wade Greene assured commissioners that his company will meet its deadlines of doing residential site plan reviews in five days, normal commercial construction reviews in 10 days and major commercial projects within 20 days.

“I promise we’ve done this many times and the complaints you’re hearing you won’t be hearing anymore,” Greene said.

Although Jones initially had reservations about the agreement, he voted for it and had harsh words for dissenters Watkins and Wynn: “We’re going to be in mass chaos without anyone in charge of this department.”

Wynn had earlier said the contract’s termination clause could allow her to vote for it as the county would have recourse if the arrangement does not work out.

She asked to reconsider the vote and cast her vote in favor of SAFEbuilt taking over inspections and permitting. The final contract is still pending.

The transfer was approved 5 to 1 and will now go before commissioners for final approval during the Feb. 18 meeting.

“Thank goodness!” a relieved Reichert said.

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