By Katie Dahlstrom
Changes to fix ongoing issues in the city of Clinton’s Building and Neighborhood Services department are on their way to the City Council after members forwarded staff recommendations during their Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday.
City staff looked at ways to fix accountability and credibility issues in the department that handles building codes, inspections, nuisances and parking issues and is hoping the temporary fixes could be made permanent in January.
City Administrator Jessica Kinser tied the department problems to the fact that Building and Neighborhood Services was never meant to be a stand-alone department, but become one when the City Council dismantled the Community Development department in 2011 due to budget woes.
Permanently making BNS a part of the fire department would alleviate the issue created when community development was abolished, Kinser explained to council members Tuesday.
Fire Chief Mike Brown and Kinser told council members the solution to fix the apparent BNS problems wasn’t one that was put forward hastily, but was done with logic and clear rationale. It was thought about for several months before being implemented on a temporary basis on Aug. 1, they said.
“There have been great changes that have taken place,” Brown said, adding that BNS staff has bought into the changes and are on their way to being properly certified to perform their jobs. “Right now there’s a really good sense of everybody working together.”
The structure change altered the chain of command and put Clinton Fire Department Battalion Chief Creighton Regenwether in charge of the department. The change putting Regenwether in charge happened in conjunction with moving former Building and Neighborhood Services Official Mike Harmon to Inspector/Assistant Code Official. With this new structure, Kinser is asking the council to amend a resolution made earlier this year that paid Harmon more money because he was performing duties out of rank.
At-large Councilman John Rowland was adamant the recommendations for the permanent changes came with too short of notice, which some of his fellow council members questioned.
“You didn’t know that we had a fire personnel in the BNS department until last week? Are you kidding me?” Ward 1 Councilwoman Maggie Klaes asked.
Rowland clarified the report from city staff asking for the changes to become permanent didn’t appear until last Monday, two days before the City Services Committee was set to discuss it. He suggested the city wait until June, closer to the city’s new fiscal year, to move forward with the changes.
Kinser said the justification for making the changes now was they could be accounted for as the city prepares to create next year’s budget, which is happening and will continue to happen in the coming months.
The changes would alter the staffing in the department to be overseen by the fire chief, followed by a battalion chief/code official that would oversee an administrative specialist, an inspector/assistant code official, a rental inspector and a nuisance inspector. The fire department wouldn’t require any additional personnel or costs to be a part of this permanent change, Kinser told council members.
The change also would eliminate a currently vacant building inspector position and ultimately save the city $63,000.
“It’s hard pressed to find savings like that in a department,” Kinser said.
Part of Rowland’s hesitation not to forward the changes before January are the four new council members that will join in January, which he believes should make the decision.
At-large Councilwoman Jennifer Graf argued the new council members were a reason to move the changes forward because the current council was responsible for demolishing the Community Development department.
“I think it’s our responsibility to at least hand it to them. Maybe embraced by Band-aids, but at least hand it to them in some sort of functional capacity because right now we have stripped it. We created something that has been left in a shambles and I think we need to give it to (them) in some sort of cohesive fashion,” Graf said.
With the exception of Rowland, the council members voted to move the changes forward to the next council meeting, less the name change to the department.
The original proposal was to change the name to Inspections, Compliance and Enforcement (ICE). But the new name didn’t stir positive feelings the city was trying to bring to the department in part because it shares the abbreviation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Other ideas for the department name were Community Safety and Inpections; Inspections and Compliance Services; and Community Safety and Health.
“We’re also trying to to change hearts and minds and attitudes towards the city and towards this department and one of the first things you can do to attempt to change a public image besides the internal issues is change the name,” Kinser said.
The Council members will have two weeks to consider the proposed changes, including a new name, before the item comes back at the Dec. 10 meeting.