What Happened To Our Building Officials?
Update 6/10/2021: The City has hired a new building official,building official, and plans examiner. Development Services should be fully staffed.
For some reason the City of Bellaire has chosen not to hire, or even attempt to hire, building officials. Instead, at the January 4, 2021, meeting Council will consider two 9-month contracts totaling $407,250 with an outside vendor. These contracts were first proposed to Council by Development Services on December 21, 2020.
Both contracts are with Safefbuilt LLC, based in Colorado. One agreement is for building inspection and plan review services with an estimated amount of $227,250 for a period of 9 months. If you are keeping count, that’s over $25,000 a month. (I added the red boxes to items of interest in the agreements.) The cost for one year could run $303,000.
A second agreement is for Building Official services with an estimated amount of $180,000 for a period of 9 months. The fee schedule at for this agreement clearly states $20,000 per month.
After the initial 9-month contracts both agreements allow for two subsequent one-year renewal options upon mutual agreement of the parties and the approval of City Council.
What’s Going On?
Somehow the annual budget amounts for Bellaire building officials for a 12-month period, $117,000 and $96,000 according to interim City Manager Brant Gary’s Agenda Statement, have morphed into $407,250 for 9 months. The City Budget was approved this past September.
To be clear, at this rate the initial 2021 budget estimate of $213,000 for two building officials could now cost over $500,000.
Safebuilt Texas LLC is the first choice of only two applicants. By my reckoning that’s not much of a choice. More to the point, why is Bellaire even shopping for contracted services? Is there some sort of prohibition on the City hiring building officials? That has always been the standard in Bellaire, why did it change?
Coincidentally, Safebuilt is already involved in the Bellaire operations, for $7,200 a month. This is from ChaVonne Sampson, the Director of Development Services, “in the interim the Building Official is Kurt Kasson, CBO, TCFP with support by Lee Swain, ICC Combination Residential/Commercial Inspector. Both are with SafeBuilt with a monthly fee of $7,200.”
Why isn’t Bellaire posting positions for building officials on our City website, just as other cities do? Safebuilt LLC seems to think they can find the necessary personnel, since they are posting online listings for Bellaire Building Officials.
Some Background on Safebuilt LLC
At this time there is no website for Safebuilt Texas LLC, and no local address. An address on Sandy Lane in Fort Worth tracks to Winston Services, a company acquired by Safebuilt LLC.
Safebuilt LLC, based in Loveland, CO, is the parent company. Thomas Wilkas, the CFO with Safebuilt who would sign off on these agreements, is located in the Denver area. Most of the staff listed in the RFP included in the Council agenda (pp 35-63 of the pdf) have been with the company for two years or less. Kurt Kasson, currently serving as the Bellaire building official, joined SAFEbuilt in March of 2020. Lee Swain joined Safebuilt in 2018.
What’s The Problem?
Why would Council consider paying $407,250 to a Colorado company when we live in the fourth largest city in the country? We can’t find employees here? Or at least area contractors?
At the contracted rates of over half a million dollars a year as suggested in these agreements, Bellaire could hire four (4) full-time City employees at the higher rate of $117,000 per year and still have money left over!
By comparison, a list of seven employees in Bellaire’s Development Services shows just one permit technician and zero building officials. Our neighbor, West University Place, currently employs two building officials and two permit technicians in their staff of seven, plus an urban forester. Two similar sized cities next-door to each other.
If Bellaire is simply unable to attract qualified applicants for job openings, then we need to know why. The City is centrally located, pays well, and offers many benefits. Are there internal problems that need to be addressed? Outside factors or interference that affect employee performance and the ability to attract and retain solid applicants?
What about the Development Services Department? Are there problems in the department that could be addressed? With only one permit technician and no building officials listed, what are the job descriptions and responsibilities of the rest of the current staff? Are the needs of the community being met?
Fool Me Once…
How can the City justify this situation? Recent events should be a warning to City Council to tread carefully with companies that are new to the City.
And what’s going on in Bellaire? Vehicles leased instead of purchased, a proposal submitted to the GLO to demolish our wastewater treatment plant and outsource our sewage treatment to Houston, and now contracts to outsource our inspection and plan review services to someone in Colorado. Zoning that caters to commercial development over residential areas. (Ref the UV-D, the CMU, and now the proposed NBSDD for the old Chevron property.)
Annual revenue from property taxes has remained essentially flat for the past three years, at around $20.5 million per year. The City’s bonded debt per capita is one of the highest in the state, but future bond issues may be required and are still being discussed. This would seem to be a time to slow down City spending, not increase it.
There are consequences to change, and not always for the better. Years ago when I worked as a realtor in Bellaire I was surprised to discover that buyers new to the area thought that Bellaire was part of Houston. I would explain that Bellaire was a full-fledged independent city, with our own municipal services and very protective of residents.
But now, with a trend towards outsourcing, privatization, and commercial development, will home buyers continue to feel that Bellaire is a well-managed small town? Or will our image and reputation as an independent city of homes suffer from these changes?
Update 1/7/21: Council approved the very expensive contracts with Safebuilt because they had no other choice. The current contract for that service expires the end of January and no one in the Development Department could perform the inspections.
Neither the highly paid Department director or recently hired Assistant Director have the skills to do the job of a building official or plan review service. In what used to be called the Inspection Department.
The January 2021 meeting included instructions from Council to Interim City Manager Brant Gary to post job listings for a building inspector and an official for plan review services. The fulltime positions with the City have been posted.
Update 1/23/2021 – The 2-week period allowed for submissions from contractors included the Thanksgiving holiday, and ended December 2, 2020. No wonder only two proposals were received.
The proposal from Safebuilt LLC was supported by City staff and submitted to Council for approval on December 21, 2020, but postponed to the January meeting. No mention was made that a Safebuilt contractor was already working for Bellaire. The contracts were approved on January 5, 2021.
Check the Update tag at the top of the sidebar for information on progress in the City’s mid-January job postings. Things are looking up!
Agenda for January 4, 2021 – Telephonic Meeting @ 7 PM
Email the Mayor and City Council via our City Clerk, Tracy Dutton, at firstname.lastname@example.org and request that your email be forwarded to them.
Total outstanding bond debt on 9/30/2020 stands at $116.4 million.
$6 million in bonds remain unissued.