CLINTON — City officials held a press conference Tuesday morning to discuss a bill in the Iowa legislature that could implement a building code in Clinton by next year.

If passed, House File 590 would enact and require enforcement of the state building code in each city with a population of more than 15,000 that does not have its own local building code. The bill would apply to building permits issued on or after July 1, 2008. The bill was introduced on Feb. 14 and sponsored by Rep. Polly Bukta, D-Clinton, and Rep. Geri Huser, D-Altoona.

City Administrator Gary Boden, Mayor LaMetta Wynn, Fire Marshal Mike Brown, Fire Chief Mark Regenwether, Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf and City Planning Director John Staszewski held the press conference Tuesday to address the issue for the media and citizens gathered at Clinton City Hall.

Boden acknowledged that previous attempts have been made to establish a building code in Clinton without success.

He noted the current legislation being presented would bring Clinton to a status equal with every significant community in the state, as the city is one of very few communities in the nation that does not have a building code.

Boden said officials are not expecting the code to eradicate housing problems overnight, providing no “quick fix answer,” but said a code would effectively establish a housing standard and provide public safety improvements for the future.

He stressed that citizens might have negative connotations regarding a building code and could be thinking that a code would mean government interference with their properties, but Boden stated the code would have no effect on properties currently occupied.

Boden cited a proposed urban revitalization program that could offer grants or low- or no-interest loans to homeowners for improvements.

He asked by what standard could the city expect the utilization of that money if there is no building code.

“It’s not a rhetorical question in Clinton. It’s a question that we have no answer for,” said Boden.

Boden said the officials gathered to make a proactive statement about a building code and give the community and the state some rationale for supporting the legislation.

Regenwether stated he and other fire officials came across an alarming fact while compiling the 2006 annual fire department report: That the city has the second highest fire death rate per capita in the state. He said the fire department began looking at why the city has such a high rate and what could be done differently to reduce that number.

“Let me be very clear, I’m not sure, I cannot tell you a building code would prevent these deaths,” Regenwether said. After noting Clinton is the only city in the top 30 cities of the fire death ranking list that does not have a building code, he added, “But it definitely is a factor that sets us apart from these other communities.”

Regenwether noted a building code would aid the fire department by preventing more significant fire losses and making buildings safer for the community and for firefighters as they respond to structure fires.

Brown said that when the new building code was adopted by the state last year, it seemed the legislature’s intent was to enforce it everywhere. He added that certain projects are subject to the code regardless of location, such as projects that use state funding. Brown offered the example of projects acquiring small business loans, which have to comply with the state building code; also construction on those projects can’t begin until plans have been reviewed and approved by the state. He said that once construction is complete, the project has to be inspected by state building inspectors, which can take time to schedule. Brown said he thinks the legislators didn’t feel those requirements were an issue because most communities have a building code that is enforced locally.

“House File 590 pertains to Clinton only because all of the other top 30 cities or cities over 15,000 in Iowa have, and for many years have had, an enforced building code,” Brown said.

He noted it would be easier on local development projects to have local enforcement of a building code. Brown cited a contractor working on the construction of the Holiday Inn Express that remarked he had never built a project anywhere that did not have a building code and was concerned because he could not say it was properly inspected at the local level. Brown also described a letter received from the State Fire Marshal’s Office last year that advised contractors to plan on setting aside thousands of dollars for inspector’s travel expenses, thereby costing developers a lot more money.

Wolf stated he was present at the conference because of the need to address the issue for the consumers that purchase those services and make sure the consumers are protected. He warned that too often he finds people being preyed upon by a minority of contractors who perform shoddy work.

“It’s a sad situation we can’t protect these people,” Wolf said. “I believe that through the building code, there will be greater protection for these consumers.”

Staszewski expressed a belief that if a building code had been instituted years ago, many problems with existing homes would not be present now. He recounted that he receives regular calls from contractors inquiring what code the city requires.

“We’re an oddity in the state of Iowa, not having a building code. It won’t put us at a disadvantage. We are at a disadvantage because we don’t have a building code,” Staszewski said.

Boden remarked that since his arrival in Clinton, he has seen construction that could have been more positively impacted by a building code. He says a building code could bring construction standards to the typical level of most American communities, thereby creating a building environment that would be an asset to development.