A tale of two cities

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Instead of Charles Dickens’ famous novel about Paris and London during the French Revolution, we are talking about Colorado Springs Utilities and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, representing two radically different “cities” or mindsets.

Dickens’ opening paragraph still resonates: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Is our city going through “the spring of hope” or “the winter of despair”?

When there is unanimity of public disregard, as is the case with the CSU’s CEO Jerry Forte and its Chairman Councilman Scott Hente, then no oversight is expected and stonewalling is standard procedure. Perhaps they already concede that CSU will be sold like Memorial, so why bother?

But when there is a difference between the head of RBD and its Chair, when the former responds in person while the latter takes three months to respond by e-mail (after pressure from the other two Commissioners), we can hear quite a bit.

Having taunted RBD’s Commissioners, it’s only fair that a brief summary of their answers should be provided.

Many answers come from the Intergovernmental Agreement that set up RBD in 1966. Once RBD puts it on its website, anyone can read it. It specifies the role of the Commissioners, the composition of their board, and the relationships between the oversight body, the advisory boards, and employment conditions.

Likewise, the organizational charts are in place — they know who does what — but should find their way to the website for public scrutiny.

The budget of $9.5 million (2012) reflects a decrease from $9.8 million (2011) and $11.2 million (2006). Since the budget is entirely composed of fees, and since fees haven’t increased since 2008, staff has been cut from 114 (2008) to 72 (2012).

Other statistical data that may be of interest: in 2011 some 53,000 permits were issued, 63 percent of them on the website. Around 150,000 inspections were required for these permits with over 80% approved on the first visit; 99 percent of the inspections are performed the same day they are requested. Pretty impressive!

RBD instituted a call-ahead program where an inspector will call 30 minutes prior to arrival so that the contractor or homeowner can be present. RBD is trying to streamline its operations electronically, from submission to approval, while maintaining a process for appeal with various technical boards. So, why are there still complaints about RBD?

Perhaps the culprits are architects and designers who have been “grand-fathered” when new codes were adopted a few years ago. When developers and owners think they get reliable information about zoning or use-change, they might be mistaken. Better ask RBD officials than rely on some professionals.

It seems that of the three Commissioners, Sharon Brown (chair), Bernie Herpin (Springs councilman), and Dennis Hisey (county commissioner), only Hisey takes his oversight job seriously. He recounted in writing his political engagement with state agencies on behalf of RBD.

What is politically at stake here? Why is RBD the “other city” as compared to CSU? While at CSU everyone seems to be asleep, congratulating themselves on lower-than-expected rate hikes for water, for example, RBD is proactive and serious about its mission and responsibilities.

At stake is political leadership that should ensure a climate that is responsive to local needs without shirking public responsibilities, balancing public safety with entrepreneurial efficiency. Developers and remodelers can put pressure on politicians so they perform.

Unlike CSU which raises rates in order to cover an ever-increasing budget — new cars for executives lately? — RBD hasn’t increased fees in four years. Unlike CSU, RBD realizes the impact of the Great Recession and has adjusted its budget.

Unlike CSU, RBD realized that to hustle for new business means spreading its wings outside the region, specializing in school permits and inspections in other counties. Yes, it’s legal; other jurisdictions are puzzled by this competition. This mindset guards against the need to raise fees.

Likewise, some legislation that imposes state electrical and plumbing codes on local jurisdictions ties the hands of RBD’s inspectors. Even when the cases are ridiculous, like requiring a child-proof outlet on the ceiling of garages, the local agency isn’t permitted discretionary application. It has to administer the state code, however bizarre.

Here’s where politics comes into play, and no, it doesn’t require money. Instead, the political leadership of RBD can ask for political help from other local politicians and petition the pro-business Governor who appoints individuals to these state boards so as to allow for greater local maneuvering power.

As long as government agencies hold the power to dictate building codes, the best we can do is direct this power to the local level, where common sense may prevail.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com