Building dept. issue enters 2019 with fresh take

By Josh Ellerbrock -

LIMA — With a bundle of printed PowerPoint slides in hand, Lima Chief Building Official Amy Harpster and Assistant Building Administrator Doug Ditto visited Allen County Commissioners Thursday morning to present their new year’s goals for the Lima Building Department.

The 2019 approach was a marked difference from last year when, throughout 2018, commissioners had explored working with Miami County to set up a regional building department under Allen County’s name, which caused pointed reactions by Lima city officials, including accusations of the county playing politics.

The move to a new department could potentially cause a $500,000 reduction in the city’s revenue, including cuts to six jobs.

During Harpster’s visit, she laid out some of the building department’s initiatives to improve its customer service over the last year. Such examples include setting up multiple meetings with building department customers, expanding the number of certifications held by department staff and putting in place a potential online plan review option.

“We heard that as a need, and we want to be responsive,” Harpster said. “We understand that there’s a larger picture, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Commissioners were responsive to the changes, but as the meeting progressed, they expressed concerns that they hadn’t heard of these changes earlier, especially in the months following a March meeting with Harpster and Lima Public Works Director Howard Elstro. At that time, the two governmental entities had found common ground on a single point — Lima’s building department had a perception issue.

After that meeting, the city’s and county’s assumptions surrounding the issue diverged. Following a stern public response by Mayor David Berger, the city had set up Finance Director Steve Cleaves as a liaison with the Allen Economic Development Group to address business concerns with the building department, but the county had continued to hear problems and pursued further discussions with Miami County through then AEDG President/CEO Jeff Sprague.

Commissioner Jay Begg said at that March meeting, the city’s response illustrated that it was not open to improvements. Harpster’s new year visit was a sign of good intent, he said, but that might not be enough.

“It’s like my diet,” Begg said. “I have good intentions and pretty soon, I’m eating ice cream at night.”

Commissioner Cory Noonan said since that meeting, it would have been foolish for commissioners to assume the problems had been solved as they continued to hear negative comments from the business community.

Ditto, who joined the department in October, pushed commissioners to express the specific problems commissioners have with building department services.

Commissioner Greg Sneary said the attitude of the city has been part of the problem. Commissioners have repeatedly said private companies with prior building department problems have been hesitant about making public statements about the city due to fears of retaliatory measures. That issue as well as the city’s “inflammatory comments” on the county’s actions on the building department issue, which he clarified as exploring options on a contract, exemplify the city’s problems, he said.

“We want the best building department for Allen County, and that’s what it comes down to,” Sneary said.

“We’re part of the community, and we want to serve the community,” Harpster said. “We’re all about economic development, and that’s what we’ll be working toward.”

Commissioners have yet to make a final decision on its contract with the Lima Building Department, which they plan to do within the next few months.

By Josh Ellerbrock

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

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