Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Building code enforcement officials are overwhelmed in Calaveras County despite the fact the county should have ample funds to do something about it, according to an interim Grand Jury report released late last week.

Thursday's report finds two code enforcement officers are drowning in a backlog of hundreds of complaints while "permit avoidance" becomes rampant since officers are too busy to crack down.

According to the report, the two positions are funded at $75,000 apiece, including salary, benefits and overhead costs. Meanwhile, the code actions taken by the officers generate about $240,000 annually, with those revenues directed into the county's general fund.

"It's like we're trying to paint the Golden Gate Bridge with a Q-Tip. You can't seem to get it all done," said Calaveras County Chief Building Official Jeff White. "We triage these things to do what we can in a way that will have the greatest benefit to public safety ... I understand the public's frustration."

The Grand Jury recommends the county dedicate the revenues generated by code compliance to hire an additional staffer to process complaints and coordinate efforts with other county land use departments.

"The excess is a "cash cow" for other County funding needs. These funds should be reserved only for improving the quality of County land use and its condition," the report states. "Additional Code Compliance Officers are needed."

White agreed that more hands on deck would be a great help. The department lost eight workers to layoffs in 2009, when revenues dropped sharply on the heels of the housing bubble burst, including four building inspectors and two code compliance officers.

"Catching up is going to take some time," he said. "I don't know if we can entirely ... we have to prioritize complaints right now."

The report also found that inconsistency in handling of the fines assessed against code violators encourages permit avoidance and other non-compliance.

Practice has created a maximum fine amount of $10,000 and increases in fines due to continued non-response are left to officers' discretion, the report states. The Grand Jury recommends a written policy be implemented and waiver of fees be a decision for the Assessment Appeals Board or Board of Supervisors instead of at the discretion of code officers.

White said violators are incurring "potential fines" and the ability to lower the totals when people cooperate encourages bringing matters into compliance.

"To have every fine be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors or something like that ... would probably just slow down the process," he said.

A further recommendation calls for greater cooperation between the Building Department and Assessor's Office to evaluate changes made to properties that can trigger re-assessments for tax purposes.