Workshop could lead to changes within Oldsmar building department

A workshop was held on Tuesday, March 8, in order to open a line of dialogue between the Oldsmar City Council and the city’s building department in light of recent complaints lodged against the department.

A work session was held in the Oldsmar City Council Chambers on Tuesday, Mar. 8 to discuss issues with the city's planning and redevelopment department.

A public work session was held in the City Council Chambers on Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2016 to discuss issues within the City of Oldsmar’s planning and redevelopment department.

In January, Matt and Sheri Clarke appeared before the Oldsmar City Council to outline a litany of complaints about the city’s planning and redevelopment department.

A years long dispute over the Clarkes’ plan to build a garage on their property had morphed into an epic ‘he said-she said’ battle between the couple and employees of the department over permits, fines, building plans and other issues.

After hearing the Clarkes’ case, the five council members, citing similar comments they had heard in the past, agreed to hold a workshop in order to open a line of dialogue with the department and determine what, if anything, needed to be done.

“This certainly is not about putting planning and redevelopment on the spot,” Mayor Bevis said at the start of the workshop on Tuesday afternoon. “I think it’s an educational process for us as a council, because… sometimes we don’t know the process.”

“In fact, I do praise the department,” he continued. “I think the department does a tremendous job in the city, and while we may have a couple of isolated issues, I think the proof is in the pudding.”

Oldsmar City Council Member Eric Seidel.

Oldsmar City Council Member Eric Seidel.

Council member Eric Seidel, however, was a little more direct about the results he expected from the work session.

“Maybe there’s things we need to do to improve the process that require investment, that require some change in behavior in terms of using software, benchmarking, how quickly is there a response, how transparent the responses are, some of the things that I know other cities are doing,” he said.

“There’s perception and reality. The difference between the two is probably not much,” he added. “But with some, there is a perception that it’s a deficiency that we have here in the city. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to address that.”

From there, Planning and Redevelopment Director Marie Dauphinais led a Power Point presentation that walked the roomful of roughly two-dozen people through the steps required to secure building permits.

During the presentation, a couple of causes for potential conflicts stood out.

First, despite having only 8 employees, the department handles, on average, 400 permit applications and 100 inspections per month, which could be considered a large workload for a relatively small department.

Oldsmar Planning and Redevelopment Director Marie Dauphinais.

Oldsmar Planning and Redevelopment Director Marie Dauphinais.

That issue is compounded by the fact that the department is still operating 100 percent on a manual basis when it comes to everything from submitting and checking permits to scheduling inspections and paying re-inspection fees.

“Across the board, we’re the only ones doing everything manually,” Council member Linda Norris said of a list of surrounding municipalities that included Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.

After Dauphinais and City Manager Bruce Haddock said they have been looking into purchasing new software that would bring many of the department’s record into the digital age, Sedeil explained the potential advantages of utilizing such a system.

“If the communications are online, we can track it, and it’s completely transparent and consistent,” he said. “It is what it is what it is.”

Haddock and Dauphinais agreed to continue to look into the possibility of purchasing at least some components of the software in the near future, and the rest of the presentation went on to detail some of the common causes of permit and construction delays, such as contractors trying to cut corners or homeowners not knowing the requirements of the state building code.

In fact, according to officials, many homeowners often do not know of previous work that had been done to their residence, nullifying any future improvements based on the state’s ‘50 percent rule’, which prevents homeowners from doing repairs or remodels that exceed 50 percent of the value of the residence.

Jim McKillen, Assistant Chief Building Inspector for Pinellas County, speaks at the Oldsmar planning department work session on Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2016.

Jim McKillen, Assistant Chief Building Inspector for Pinellas County, speaks during the planning department work session on Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2016.

“Sometimes you have to tell people ‘no’…you can’t do it,” Jim McKillen, Assistant Chief Building Inspector for Pinellas County, who handles Oldsmar’s cases, said. “If it doesn’t meet the codes, you can’t do it.”

“Like, on the 50 percent rule one sometimes, I’ve looked at them 6, 8 times. We’ve had meetings 3, 4 times with people prior (and said), you’re over the 50 percent rule…I’m not making it up. I can’t justify it. I can’t do it.”

At the conclusion of the two-hour session, the participants said they were pleased with the meeting.

“The meeting helped the council understand that it’s a very complicated process, and anything we can do to help simplify the process, we want to know about as soon as possible,” Mayor Bevis said.

“I think it went well,” Dauphinais said. “I think everybody understands it’s a very complicated process, and I think if we do get the software, it will benefit everybody.”

While the city officials said all the right things after the workshop, some residents weren’t completely on board with the planned improvements for the department.

Oldsmar residents Kay and Larry Wolfe (R) and Matt and Sheri Clarke (pink shirts) were united recently due to their problems with the city's building department.

Oldsmar residents Kay and Larry Wolfe (R) and Matt and Sheri Clarke (pink shirts) were united recently due to their problems with the city’s building department.

“I don’t think it will change anything,” Larry Wolfe, who, like the Clarkes, also recently had an issue with the permitting process, said afterwards.

“We’re trying to get things changed in Gul Aire (Village), but this 50/50 thing certainly doesn’t benefit us.”

Unfortunately for the Clarkes, any changes within the department could be too late for them.

According to a post on their Facebook page on Thursday, the couple plans to move from their home in the near future.

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