Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is Council Losing Sight of the Forest for the Trees?

Hopefully borough council will remember the path they take has 
making development easier in Pottstown as a goal, 
not just outsourcing codes.
Almost as long as I have been covering Pottstown, 15 years next month, there have been complaints about Pottstown's codes department.

That's to be expected I suppose.

Like newspaper people, they are often the bearers of bad news -- "that's not right," that won't meet code," you'll have to do that over" -- and we messengers are used to being shot at.

But the issues raised over the years have gone beyond mere griping; so far in fact that many have opined that the codes department has been part of the reason that Pottstown has not been more revitalized

In all likelihood, the high property tax rate has a little more to do with that, but these things are incremental and every obstacle removed helps move us in the right direction.

And of course, its easier to outsource a codes department than it is to lower taxes. To be fair, the lion's share of the tax burden comes from the school district so there is not much borough council can do on that score.

None of which is to say that there haven't been problems in the codes office. There have -- big ones.

Tales of contradictory instructions from different inspectors, paperwork delays and other problems are too many to mention individually.

The June arrest of landlord Frank McLaughlin on charges that many of his properties had devices that by-passed water meters, raised an interesting question.

How had those properties undergone so many use and occupancy permit inspections without anyone noticing?

It was that question which, in all likelihood, led to a Montgomery County grand jury investigation.

(Some sources have indicated this investigation may have been recently dropped without any charges being filed. However, I have not yet been able to confirm that.)

However, although relevant by way of introduction, that's not our direct subject for the day.

For the past several months, I have been hearing complaints from developers, contractors and property owners -- complaints about the difficulty they are having with the Conshohocken engineering firm the borough hired to handle some inspections and applications for the codes department and planning commission.

The name of that firm is Remington, Vernick and Beach.

At first, I just dismissed these calls as the regular complaints of those who didn't like a decision about their project.

But they started piling up and they all had the same themes.

Typical was one recent call from a commercial and industrial contractor who has done business for 39 years. He said he had never seen such ridiculous requirements.

"It's 10 times worse than it was under codes. I never had these issues when it was just codes," he told me.

For one project, anticipating an objection, he presented a document from a certified engineer that stated he would not need a formal land development review.

"That cost me $350, but Remington wouldn't take it. So they charged me $1,000 to look into it and they said 'yeah, you're right, you don't need to. How is that being more customer friendly?" he asked.

He said he is aware of circumstances in which it took four months for a homeowner to get a permit just to put a deck on the back of their house.

A project he is now trying to complete, a 194-square-foot addition to house a walk-in freezer, has so far cost him $8,500 to satisfy all of Remington's conditions.

"And that cost just gets passed back to the client. This is the new streamlined development process? How does that encourage development"

One developer said he waited days for a
call back from Remington, Vernick and Beach
"I've waited days, sometimes more than a week for a call back," he said.

(Similarly, a call I made Monday to the firm seeking comment on an article in today's paper  was not returned.)

Aren't commercial and industrial contractors and, more importantly, their clients, the kind of people we want to keep happy to bring jobs back to Pottstown? Wasn't that the point?

Another office renovation project was delayed for months while detailed plans drawn up by an architect were revised over and over to satisfy Remington objections.

Add to this complaints made on the record by Pottstown School officials last week, and published in today's Mercury, about requirements and changes that are not only delaying the work at Barth Elementary School, but threaten to add "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to the costs of Barth and several other building projects  planned for next year.

That's money out of the same taxpayer pockets that pay borough taxes.

How is this helping Pottstown revitalize?

All of this raises several questions, questions not raised by council, which, with the exception of Travis Gery, happily voted to spend as much as $33,000 to hire this firm to "benchmark the codes department" and offer suggestions on improvement.

First question: How is a firm that is getting bad marks for customer service, timeliness and a streamlined process the best choice to provide advice on good customer service, timeliness and a streamlined process?

When it eliminated historic architecture review board protections for historic buildings downtown, council at least said it was done because of complaints by developers; even though they could never name a single one.

Did they speak with their same developer friends about how things are going under Remington? Wouldn't that be pertinent information before hiring that firm to tell you how to make improvements?

Secondly, raise your hand if you believe that the report won't come back recommending, among other things, that the codes department be "outsourced" to a private firm.

I don't see any hands out there.

Of course, were this suggestion to be followed, the job would hopefully be put out to bid and not just handed over to Remington; but given that Remington will be writing the report, they would certainly be well-positioned to win that bid.

Hopefully, council would not allow them to bid because of the potential conflict of interest, but I'm not holding my breath.

Not-so-coincidentally, this path, if taken, will be made even easier by the fact that the code inspectors were recently ruled to be "at-will employees" and no longer members of the AFSCME union, which, no doubt, would have made outsourcing the codes work more politically painful.

Much of this effort, it seems to me, is an example of council becoming married to an oft-mentioned  solution to a problem without asking themselves if the solution will make the problem worse.

In other words, losing sight of the forest for the trees. 

The goal should not be to outsource the codes department.

Mark Flanders is one of three finalists
for the borough manager's job.
The goal should be to improve the process of development in the borough so that it is as smooth, painless and inexpensive as possible.

If outsourcing the codes department accomplishes this, be sure you have pretty solid evidence before making that choice.

That evidence should not come from a firm that stands to make money from that recommendation.

Outsourcing codes is not an accomplishment to burnish on your record.

Making development in the borough easier is the accomplishment that matters; the one that will help bring jobs back to this borough.

If the end result of this process is to shut down codes and hire Remington -- which will no doubt help Chief Mark Flanders' chances of becoming the next borough manager, now that he is confirmed to be one of the three finalist candidates -- council will have lost sight of how they got started down this path.

The goal is to make development easier and more streamlined, not just to outsource codes.

That is not a goal. That is a means to an end. If you're going to take it, make sure its where you end up.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Perfect Evan. What a waste of taxpayer dollars added to the fact that we are paying an additional sum for a SEARCH for a borough manager? This is a travesty. There can be no better recommendation for electing 5 new council people next year AND putting an experienced manager in place.

  3. One has to wonder what criteria is being used to make these decisions? A Ouija board might yield better results.

    Frankly, this whole process of finding a new Borough Manager smells of rotting Mackerel. Connecting the dots as Evan has done here are making a strong case for going outside the "gene pool" to get a new and highly experienced manager for the whopping salary being offered by council.

    I don't believe Mr. Flanders is the best possible choice out there. What municipal management experience or education does he possess? Being Chief of Police isn't the same as managing an entire borough and one would think different skill sets would be needed.

    Is this whole exhausting exercise an elaborate ritual to justify a promotion and a large salary increase for Mr. Flanders? I thought he was retiring??????