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East County Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011 6 years ago

OUR VIEW: Manatee is open for business


What happens when a county building department begins acting like a business and focusing on customer service and cost controls? You get Manatee County and an environment that is prepared for economic recovery.

About three years ago, Manatee took strident steps to change the perception in much of the private sector that it was anti-business and anti-development. It was a perception based in a lot of truth. And it was a perception that has been felled like an old oak tree.

Manatee County’s perceived turnaround is not only dramatic, it is ongoing. The latest change is a reduction in building permit fees to better reflect county costs, which the county keeps driving down.

Building permit fees were recently cut about 10%, while some areas were cut much more sharply because of a restructuring, said John Barnott, director of the county building department and the engine behind the changes in the perceptions of that department.

For instance, it used to cost about $1,000 for pool permits. Crazy. And Barnott, a long-time private-sector guy, knew it. The problem was that each pool required at least nine inspections, and the inspectors for the county were all specialized. Each was only certified in either electric, building, plumbing or mechanical, and all those individual trips for inspectors cost money.

So Barnott required his inspectors to be cross-trained and certified in all four areas. The new pool permitting costs are $425. “That saved us money and I’m passing it on to my customers.”

Also, Barnott recommended reducing permitting fees on commercial properties that are built as shells waiting for tenants to do the interior build-out. Those fees went from 76 cents per square foot to 54 cents. For residential properties, those permits fell from 76 cents to 45 cents.

This is huge for Lakewood Ranch because almost all of the county growth is in East County. According to the U.S. Census, Manatee’s island communities lost population in the past 10 years, and Bradenton and Palmetto were flat. But the county grew 22%, and almost all of that was in East County. That trend will continue and points to the importance of the changes in the building department.

The County Commission unanimously approved all of the changes with nary a discussion. The recession has at least had the effect of focusing some minds on reality.

The permit-fee changes came from a study Barnott had conducted, and he is confident that permitting costs are now in line.

Another study, done by a predecessor and more problematic, was done on the planning side, and that one found that development review fees need to rise 94%. The commission approved those, also.

But Barnott is not as confident that will be needed, and now that he also oversees that department because of consolidation, he is going to monitor and measure those every month against projections.

Credit for changing Manatee County’s perception also goes to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker for putting Barnott in place and backing his changes. Hunzeker has shown courage in putting everything on the table for cuts — including libraries — and not ducking from the loudest special interests. And finally, the county commissioners who supported Hunzeker get some credit also.

It is a far cry from what may be the low point for the county in 2008 when Thermodyn, a Toledo, Ohio, manufacturer, was building a 25,000-square-foot plant in Manatee County to expand. After $60,000 in permits and three years of frustration, the owner gave up and sold the building for a loss. The company expanded in Ohio instead, where the permitting cost just more than $4,000 and took just five months.
Manatee had to change.

And it has.

Barnott is key. The former Ohio-based Columbia Gas manager retired to Florida, but like so many could not stay retired. So he brought his philosophy of governments acting more like a business and focusing on customer service to Manatee. He ended up getting rid of the building department employees who were not onboard and cut the entire department nearly in half. His continued emphasis on reigning in costs and working for the customer show what can be accomplished.

Many municipalities are reducing impact fees to spur new development and get the construction industry off its back.

But Manatee’s overhaul of its systems, personnel and attitudes points the way for others.

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