Resolve Building Department problems ASAP

January 21, 2007 11:00 pm

To Calaveras County's credit, it is trying to deal with its problems. But new crises seem to crop up as fast as old ones recede.

The Board of Supervisors last week had the political courage to extend the county's zoning moratorium for 10 more months, allowing the Planning Department to trim a major backlog of application and help draft a badly needed new General Plan.

But at the same time a host of new and potentially more serious Building Department problems arose:

• A group of builders at last week's board meeting labeled the department dysfunctional and said a grinding, inefficient bureaucracy has slowed the permit process to a crawl.

• A county-commissioned performance audit found that key health and safety measures in the Uniform Building Code have been regularly ignored, that department files are incomplete and that "time, money and energy" are wasted in a cumbersome plan-checking procedure.

• Chief Building Official Ray Waller was put on paid administrative leave in early October and nobody will say why. So far he's been paid more than $20,000 in taxpayers' money to stay home.

With a county growing as fast as Calaveras, such problems are serious.

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of building permits granted in the county annually has more than doubled — from 425 to 862. Given the number of new lots already approved in subdivisions, these totals will only increase.

Gaining more than 1,000 new residents every year and quickly closing in on a population of 50,000, Calaveras is one of California's fastest growing counties.

Its sheer rate of growth amplifies any building or planning problems, rendering consequences more serious and making the search for solutions more urgent.

That's why Supervisor Bill Claudino's reaction to JAS Pacific's interim audit report on the Building Department was disheartening. He labeled the report, which documents slipshod work, code violations and duplications of labor that may have cost the county thousands of dollars as merely "interesting."

Alarming and shocking are more like it: The report should elicit calls for prompt action.

On the plus side, Community Development Director Stephanie Moreno said she will likely follow one of JAS Pacific's key recommendations: That the Building Department check plans in house and discharge the stable of consultants that now does the work under contract for about $500,000. As it is, said JAS Pacific, Building Department staffers double check plans filed by consultants anyway.

Moreno has already stopped allowing contractors to choose their own plan-checking firm — which the report deemed "not a good practice for obvious reasons."

These are good first steps.

But JAS Pacific has more work to do and it will be up to the board and county administration to both address issues raised in its final report and to answer builders' concerns by streamlining the permit process and at the same time making sure no legal corners are cut.

Finally, there is the Waller matter. Although law prevents county officials from discussing specifics, his uncertain status hangs like a cloud over the Building Department controversy.

For the sake of all involved — including the citizens who pay his salary — the situation should be resolved as quickly as possible.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.