The city of Hastings is looking to improve communication with local developers and contractors as the city pursues delegated authority.
That was the message from Mayor Corey Stutte and members of the Hastings City Council during a discussion about delegated authority at the council work session on June 20. Delegated authority is also one of 13 topics on the agenda for the council’s annual retreat 2 pm Sunday at Lochland Country Club.
Delegated authority is the process of the Nebraska state fire marshal delegating authority to enforce statewide fire code to qualified local personnel.
The state is responsible for enforcing the code itself, but if the local municipality has qualified personnel the state allows the local fire official to be the point of contact for enforcing all of the state-level codes.
There are several different faces of state fire regulation enforcement, each with a different inspector and permit technician.
Delegated authority consolidates all of those.
Fire Chief Brad Starling said he has emails about delegated authority that date back to early 2019 when the city was having significant issues with builders in the community experiencing difficulty being able to proceed on a project due to delays at the state level as well as confusion between city code and state code.
“The nuts and bolts of delegated authority adds no new code,” he said. “It just gives the local authority the delegation from the state to enforce the state code that’s already in place and the city code that is already in place.”
One proposed fire code change is a city fire code review fee, the amount of which would be based on the scope of a construction project.
Hastings Fire Marshal Anthony Murphy has used the new $70 million Grand Island Regional Hospital as an example.
The state fire code review fee, which is the fire review fee in place in Hastings, would be $500.
After delegated authority and the proposed fee changes in Hastings, that fire review fee would be $18,000 on a $70 million project.
By comparison, Murphy said the actual Grand Island fire review fee for the project was $120,852.
The new fees would allow the city to hire additional inspection staff and expedite local construction projects.
The city sought to make delegated authority revenue neutral.
Starling said delegated authority doesn’t need to be revenue-neutral, or if it is going to create a huge cost, the city can review those fees.
“But the bottom line is our current employees can’t support the additional workload required of the state because we can’t even currently get out there and effectively inspect the buildings we’re responsible to inspect because there’s just way too many occupancies in town to be able to do that,” Starling said.
Lisa Parnell-Rowe, development services director, said the fee Murphy used as an example is for a hospital, which is a large project and an extreme example.
“The average, new development is not going to be as large,” she said.
Murphy and representatives from the Hastings Development Services Department have held informational meetings to educate the public about the proposed changes.
Murphy received feedback expressing concern about the fees, but also the exact opposite feedback, stating “I think you’re selling yourself short” and that Hastings should be more along the lines of other cities.
Murphy is asking for feedback, especially from contractors.
Council President Ginny Skutnik said many local contractors have invested in the community.
National brands building in Hastings won’t feel the pinch with a fire review fee as much as local contractors.
“I don’t want to see that unique style of businesses opening up in downtown stymied because of exorbitant fees,” she said.
Councilman Ted Schroeder, a retired real estate agent, said he was contacted by several local builders who are concerned about the proposed changes.
“I don’t discredit the effort that Development Services is attempting to make,” Schroeder said. “You’re looking at things, you’re coming up with ways to make a big hassle turn into something much easier. As of right now, that hasn’t happened.”
Three meetings were set up with elected officials and former City Administrator Dave Ptak to address the concerns of seven or eight local developers.
“They were extremely upset,” Schroeder said. “It wasn’t mild. They had some very pointed and very good examples of how they don’t know if they’re being treated fair. The timing wasn’t good.”
Development Services Department representatives were not invited to the meetings with developers with the thought that the developers would speak more freely that way.
“This is no insult to any of you personally, but right now we’ve got a discontent group, I think, that we need to address,” Schroeder said.
Utility Manager Kevin Johnson, who is the acting city administrator, said feedback from those meetings didn’t get back to the personnel who needed to hear it.
“If we have conversations and the expectation is we want to change things or communicate better, we’ve got to get that communication back to the departments,” Johnson said. “I tell people all the time, at the utilities, my door is wide open but when you walk in and tell me there’s a problem or an issue, if you haven’t socialized it with your immediate supervisor and that immediate supervisor, I’ m going to send you back to try and get it fixed at that level because all I’m doing is superseding their authority, superseding the opportunity to fix it.”
He suggested smaller groups meeting with contractors and developers.
“I don’t need generalities when we start talking about this stuff; We need specifics, and we can do that if we start meeting with them one on one and some real understanding of where the gaps are,” he said.
Development services staff members need specifics about the challenges developers face and how best to improve the communication about code changes and the permitting process.
“We’ll work to phase in what we can,” Johnson said.
Stutte wants to establish a plan to fix what he called a “customer service problem.”
“Please be willing to sit down with department heads so we get it to the right people to figure this out,” he said.