By. Neil Williamson, President
No fooling, Albemarle County is clearly on a roll. As the members of the Board of Supervisors are considering the economic impacts of increased property taxes on the community, on April Fool’s day they are also considering a semi-automatic 7.5% increase in Community Development fees. These are the fees associated with gaining approvals on home improvements, construction, neighborhood development and inspections. Staff projects this will generate $106,000 in FY16 revenue [not included in current budget].
The rationale for the fee increase is the county wide increase in staff salaries since the last increase. While labor costs are generally the largest component to most enterprise activities. Local government lacks the demand for efficiency that the free enterprise system uses to keep labor costs in check.
Please let me explain.
The private sector utilizes the lowest paid but qualified individual to accomplish any given task, this frees the more highly compensated staff to accomplish more highly demanding tasks. As this qualified person becomes adroit in the task, the task takes less time and the staff member gains skills.
If a private sector organization continually returns to the client on multiple instances with repetitive questions thus delaying the project, the client takes their business elsewhere. Not in government.
If an organization fails to prioritize their labor properly the pricing becomes too high for the market to bear and the client takes their business elsewhere. Not in government.
How long an employee takes to process and approve an application is dependent on five key elements:
- the clarity of the application
- the clarity of the ordinances to be measured against
- the quality and experience of the reviewer
- the institutional personality of management regarding applications
Applicants can only control the first of the four key elements.
Far too many in local government believe, “No planner has ever been fired for saying ‘No’ to an applicant or for asking too many questions.”
In Albemarle, we have heard tales of several larger applicants that have spent tens of thousands of dollars in reengineering plans multiple times in attempts to gain acceptance. These applicants are in a difficult position, if they choose to fight the staff regarding an overzealous legal interpretation they put their project at risk. Instead they chose to accept the overzealous interpretation (and the increased costs). This then emboldens staff to increase the application requirements based on precedent (rather than ordinance change) All of these costs are passed on to the end user.
We are aware of one misguided senior staff member who believes he, alone, stands as the public’s watchdog, the protector of all things Albemarle. This staff member has gone so far as to refusing to accept application approvals from state regulating agencies including Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Unfortunately, perhaps due to a lack of proper management controls, this long time staff member has, over time, achieved significant influence over development applications.
Short of moving a project to a neighboring locality (which we are seeing more and more of) local government does not have the same economic checks and balances as the private sector. With a monopoly on construction inspections and approvals, the only mechanism to promote efficiency is the willingness of the Board of Supervisors (or City/Town Council) to increase fees.
The Free Enterprise Forum wonders if on her first day (4/1/2015), Albemarle’s new Economic Development Director Faith McClintic will be called on by the Board of Supervisors to weigh in on the impact of fee inflation has on attraction and, equally important retention of businesses.
Clearly businesses recognizes the costs associated with running government. The question remains are the fees representative of an efficient operation or is Albemarle’s semi-automatic fee increase program creating an environment where work expands to fill the planner time available?
Will the semi-automatic 7.5% fee increase become the new “normal” or with the Albemarle Board of Supervisors recognize the negative impacts of the proposal and reject it as a bad April Fools joke?
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo Credits: ownbond.com, NBC, Monterrey County, Albemarle County