A regional agency that provides building codes services has asked to join Wasco County’s task force looking at issues regarding those services.
Wasco County told the agency, the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, that the county will leave the matter up to the members of the task force, which includes three local contractors and three government staffers.
The five-county MCCOG board met Tuesday and discussion about building codes were contentious and included opposing recollections of events.
Wasco County Administrator Tyler Stone, who is facilitating the task force, said he had already asked task force members about including MCCOG, and they said they feared a MCCOG appointee would take a defensive stance.
MCCOG representative Steve Shaffer, the Gilliam County judge, contended Wasco County convened the task force, and had the ability to direct that MCCOG be allowed to sit in on it.
Wasco County Commissioner Rod Runyon said Stone would “share” the information from the committee with MCCOG. Mike Weimer, a Gilliam County commissioner and MCCOG representative, said, “sharing is different than working with MCCOG.”
When Wasco County decided to start the task force in February, at Stone’s recommendation, MCCOG officials said they were surprised and unaware a problem existed.
MCCOG officials said complaints by master electrician Wayne Lease about how it uses its large building codes services reserve fund were fully
answered and they didn’t realize Lease had been steadily airing those same concerns to Wasco County for the last year.
Runyon said concerns are longstanding, well-known and had been brought up by more contractors than just Lease.
MCCOG Chair Mike Smith, a Sherman County commissioner, disagreed with Runyon that there were any well-known concerns. He said he “didn’t have a clue” that the issue was still being discussed.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t have a clue,” Runyon answered.
Runyon said he didn’t see the task force as a “big deal.” He said, “What we want to do is get this off the table so Wasco County isn’t dealing with this every meeting.”
Later, he told the Chronicle the county in July 2012 asked the state to do a report on MCCOG’s financial handling of the Area Agency on Aging.
The county took that step after hearing frequent complaints from a citizen, Runyon said.
He said the two matters are similar – a citizen-initiated study of a MCCOG-provided service. “That’s why I keep saying, something’s stirring the pot here,” Runyon said. “It’s not that big a deal. When we did this before and it went to the state I don’t remember any big backlash like this that’s going on now.
“We didn’t ask for MCCOG’s permission to write a letter to the state asking for help back then, and we didn’t ask MCCOG’s permission to form a committee to look at complaints by contractors in Wasco County.”
Runyon agreed that Lease’s questions have been resolved, but he said other questions from other contractors remain. He added, “Maybe this committee will help make things better.”
He said things improved after the state report was done on the Area Agency on Aging.
Smith said a review was always a good idea, but not being part of the review “creates turmoil.”
Questions turned to who was picked to be on the task force.
Marvin Pohl, deputy director of MCCOG, wondered if the members were hand-picked for having anti-building code beliefs and MCCOG representative Russ Brown, a The Dalles city councilor, said he was also curious about the criteria used to select the task force. He said it could be a good thing to have the task force, but it depended on whether they had “a bone to pick.”
Runyon said, “Were they sought out because they were against this or that? I don’t know if that’s true at all.”
Awhile after being directly asked who was on the committee, Wasco County officials ultimately listed the members: local contractor Gary Hage of Hage Electric & Construction Services, Inc.; Erik Kerr, manager of Crestline Construction; Mike O’Brien, of Mike O’Brien Construction Inc.; a person from Design Structures has been invited; representatives from the city and county planning departments; and hopefully a representative from state building codes in Salem.
Lease is purposely not on the committee, Stone said.
Calls to the three contractors were not returned by press time.
Stone said the first meeting of the task force generated a list of positives and negatives about building codes services. Positives included the ability of staff to generate solutions in the field, the ability of contractors to to get permits and the coordination of inspections to facilitate quicker construction.
But areas listed as not working as well, Stone said, included accountability, budget transparency, a lack of leadership, communication, a lack of cohesion with city and county planning departments and “the existing administration appears to be struggling.”
Stone said the building codes services were not seen as pro-business, and there were suggestions for cross-training of inspectors and doing e-services such as handling some inspections remotely via video to save staff time.
Stone said, “If the approach is to ignore these concerns, we’re making a big mistake.”
Stone stressed that the quality of services by building codes staff itself was not being questioned.
MCCOG representative Maui Meyer, a Hood River County commissioner, said MCCOG itself has discussed improving efficiency through cross-training and potentially handling inspections via video link rather than having inspectors driving to remote locations.
Contractor Ron Hageman, of Hageman Builders told the MCCOG board, “I can’t think of one instance where I’ve had a problem with our building codes.”
Hageman said he didn’t fill out a survey sent out by building codes a year or so ago “because it was working out great.”
“I apologize to everyone from building codes for not stepping up til now. You’ve been doing a great job,” Hageman said.
Recollections differed among MCCOG members over whether a building codes advisory committee was suggested earlier, but nixed by MCCOG.
Runyon said Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege – who was not at the meeting – had said an advisory committee idea was rebuffed by MCCOG.
Smith and Meyer disagreed.
Interim Building Codes Official Bob Futter also disagreed, saying building codes tried twice over several years to form advisory committees, but got no response even though it reached out to every contractor it worked with.
Others wondered why any problems were being taken up by Wasco County and not MCCOG, since it runs the 5.5-employee building codes services.
Stone said, “Contractors didn’t want to bring this information to MCCOG because there’s a fear of reprisal in their business.”
Futter adamantly denied any reprisals would happen.
“I am saying there’s no retaliation and no possibility of retaliation,” Fetter said. He said one contractor brought a “strong complaint” against an inspector last year, which was ruled unfounded. “There was zero retaliation against that” contractor, he said.
Meyer asked if the fear of retaliation was “real or is that a convenient excuse” for Wasco County to study the matter outside MCCOG’s purview.
Meyer said, “Somehow, there’s this feeling” Wasco County is looking for a way out of the building codes services.
Runyon said he didn’t see it that way; he said it was just a function of examining complaints by contractors about building codes services.
Hege earlier told the Chronicle there was a possibility building codes services could end up under county control.
Runyon said it could end up that building codes stays unchanged or it could revert to the state.
Meyer said if building code services reverted to the state – which had handed it off to MCCOG in 2007 – then the “level of services would vaporize.”
Pohl contended Hege had a conflict of interest in bringing forward complaints about building codes because Hege is a contractor.
Runyon said Hege is not a contractor anymore.
Pohl contended Hege was “organizing the opposition” and had an axe to grind about building codes.
Reached for comment, Hege said, “I have no axe to grind, but I do have a responsibility to oversee programs such as these to ensure they serve the needs of Wasco County. At this point that is all I understand we are doing.
“While it can be challenging to address things like these, I would not be doing my job if I chose to ignore concerns I see.
“This is a program that, according to MCCOG, is operating in the red and has been for some time. I support evaluating the building codes function to see if there is a more efficient manner to provide this service.”
Hege opposed a 20 percent fee increase that took effect in 2014, and noted that the building codes service is still operating in the red.
“If the operation continues as it is under MCCOG I would expect to see another request for another increase in fees,” Hege said. “If we can identify a more efficient model, perhaps we can avoid another fee increase.”