For months Theresa O'Donnell, director of the city's Sustainable Development and Construction department, has been meeting with contractors and developers about how to loosen up the permit-granting, inspection-making logjam caused in recent months by departmental layoffs and other budget-busters. Says O'Donnell, TEXO, which reps most of the major commercial contractors in North Texas, came to her late last year and asked if there was any way her department could do its job better, even with a fraction of the fraction of the staff. She told the contractors she'd look into it, and in early August the council's Economic Development Committee was presented with the solution: Effective Business Strategies to Support Sustainable Growth, which raised building inspection fees in order to "recover the true costs of delivering services to our customers" by $169,925 in the coming fiscal year. The committee OK'd the proposal.
But no doubt you recall: Late last month some builders, real-estate reps, chambers of commerce and preservationists sent a letter to the mayor and council insisting that the proposal was unfair -- especially to those working on homes in historic districts. O'Donnell told Unfair Park at the time she was "quite surprised" by the letter, but that she'd "take a step back and take a deep breath and start over."
But Sunday night the Unfair Park in-box began filling up with missives from folks who said, in short: Theresa O'Donnell lied to you. Wrote Old Oak Cliff Conservation League president Michael Amonett in a letter to several historic and conservation districts' higher-ups: "Even though Theresa O'Donnel told the Dallas Observer last week that a proposal to raise fees for Conservation Districts, Historic Districts and developers would not happen this year ... that was not true."
So I sent O'Donnell an e-mail Monday morning. She then took time off from her time off on Labor Day to explain.
In short, she insists, this thing's turned into quite the stew of misinformation, crossed wires and bruised egos. (Which reiterates something someone else told me Monday morning -- chiefly, the preservationists were none too pleased when O'Donnell referred to the "historic folks" as "free-riders." Even O'Donnell acknowledges that's part of the problem: "They say I called them 'free-loaders.' But 'free-rider' is the proper technical term for someone who doesn't pay their fair share.")
O'Donnell says ever since her Unfair Park interview, she's been hearing from contractors who don't want the proposal pushed back another year. She says many contractors are "looking at the big picture" and support the fee increase, since building inspections and permit reviews are not funded out of the general budget. As O'Donnell reminded last month, the building inspections department is an enterprise fund department, or a "fee-for-service department," meaning that "the fees that are charged for building permits and inspections, that's the revenue used to pay the salaries, the operating expenses, everything for that staff."
"Sure," she said Monday, "the proposal might take a re-inspection from $25 to $75, but they know it'll cost them more than $50 to shut down a job and send the crew home and wait for a day or even longer. That's more expensive than another $50 fee."
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O'Donnell says, and other sources confirm, she's been meeting with contractors and preservationists in recent weeks to discuss how to proceed with the proposal. And the fact is, she says, she can't just yank it out of the budget, which the council will officially read for the first time at Wednesday's meeting. It's "a complicated, 75-page document" whose fees were factored into this year's budget proposal following the Economic Development Committee's OK last month. (According to the proposed budget, "Target review time on plans review is 14 days. Walk-in customer wait time will be an average of 10 minutes.")
City staff, says O'Donnell, is working on an "alternate proposal " that would eliminate fees for the coming fiscal year, and council will ultimately be presented with both before the September 23 final vote. She's also briefing the Landmark Commission this morning on the proposal to charge fees for permits in historic and conservation districts, which presently aren't charged for such things.
I asked her: Is it fair to say, then, that the proposal is in limbo?
"Limbo's a good way to put it," she says. "We have a council committee recommendation to go forward. Staff is preparing a proposal to remove it, but the industry continues to express a desire to have further talks."