LIMA — The best building department for Allen County might be located in Miami County.
Richard Osgood, Miami County Development Director, confirmed that Allen County commissioners reopened discussions about expanding Miami County’s building department into the region this past month — a repeat of a similar initiative undertaken by Commissioners Cory Noonan and Jay Begg this past February.
At that time, the commissioners’ visit evolved into a public feud between the Lima Building Department and county groups as both sides worked to prove or disprove the effectiveness of the department. But while the public argument mostly fizzled out by May, talks to find an alternate department continued outside of public meetings.
Commissioner Greg Sneary said the county and Allen Economic Development Group have been practicing “due diligence” in continuing to find an alternative to the contract the county holds with the City of Lima’s building department.
“We’re not trying to keep anybody in the dark about anything,” Sneary said. “I think there’s been some way it’s being painted into something that’s an ulterior motive or something. It’s not.”
Instead, Sneary said like any contract the county holds with private organizations, they’ll review alternatives if the contract holder is not standing up to par.
The contract the county holds with the city tasks Lima’s Building Department with the county’s commercial building permitting. Without the contract, Lima would lose $500,000 in revenues and would be forced drop six city employees.
“Why does the city want to do this so bad?” Sneary said. “The profit potential, that’s what they’re after. So it’s dollars and cents to them. It’s more than that to us.”
Director of Public Works Howard Elstro said the city has not been contacted about the county’s continued exploration despite moves undertaken in April meant to open up communication between the groups involved.
“The depth and extent of the conversations, as they are beginning to be revealed to us, tells me that there’s been concerted effort and discussion put into this plan, and we were totally blindsided by it,” Elstro said.
Back in March, Elstro, Chief Building Official Amy Harpster, AEDG President/CEO Jeff Sprague and commissioners met to discuss building department issues and agreed that there was a perception problem regarding the building department’s permitting process. Following the meeting, both parties worked to prove the truth behind the perception.
Lima’s building department conducted a survey of its customers and requested a state audit, and AEDG had plans to hire a third-party surveyor. But the appointment of Steve Cleaves as a liasion between AEDG and the city effectively silenced public arguments between the two groups.
Following the appointment, Cleaves held weekly meetings with AEDG, and Elstro said he was under the impression that the issues had been talked through.
“I read that as things got worked out,“ Elstro said.
Cleaves was not available for comment.
But Sneary said county officials never really stopped looking for an alternative after April and that troubles with the Lima Building Department have been a consistent problem for years.
“We got started down this road, and you just don’t drop it midstream,” Sneary said.
At this point, Sneary said there’s been nothing set in stone by any of the parties involved, and that nixing Lima’s contract isn’t a done deal. But the wheels have been set in motion to consider the possibility.
On Dec. 20, Miami County building officials have plans to present their services during the Allen County Township Association’s meeting. Lima has not received the same invitation.
“They already know what they’re getting from the City of Lima,” Sneary said.
Instead, Elstro has asked to present evidence of the steps the building department has taken within the last year to upgrade its customer service during Thursday’s commissioner meeting.
“After discussions earlier this year, we heard their message — to have better customer service and be more responsive. We take comments and criticisms seriously,” Elstro said. “We’re trying to build flexibility and redundancy into our staffing. That takes time. It’s been our primary focus this year.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.