Wednesday, November 17, 2010

City makes pitch to builders

Division of Building Safety answers questions from contractors and architects

Express Staff Writer

Building contractor Bob Voertman still doesn't know what to think of the city potentially switching to a paperless blueprint-submittal process, despite sitting through an hour-and-a-half-long pitch Monday meant to convince him and the 70 other ambivalent builders overfilling City Hall.

Questions at the informational meeting centered on the looming suspicion that the city would lose its building inspector, and building-permit fees would land in Boise. That concern stems from the fact that the city is entering into a partnership with the Idaho Division of Building Safety to use its ProjectDox, which allows contractors and architects to submit building plans online from anywhere, and have the division review the building plans.

"I'm kind of on the fence," said Voertman, vice president of Engelmann contractors. "I see the benefit but am reluctant to have something like this move to the state level."

That seemed to be the consensus of his peers, who didn't, so much, express doubt about the web-based program. Voertman said ProjectDox would have the benefit of cutting out the "runaround" of bringing reams of blueprints to the city, fire chief and so on. The plans can be accessed simultaneously and anywhere with an Internet connection. Plus, plans would be approved about twice as fast, meaning contractors could get to work sooner.

"I think it's the future," said Ketchum architect Steve Cook, pointing out that architects use computers to design. "I'm eagerly awaiting the transition."

Some in the industry expressed concern because they design remodels and additions on paper. However, the city said it can scan plans and put them in the ProjectDox system, quickly dispelling the rumor that the city won't accept paper plans.

Idaho Division of Building Safety Administrator Kelly Pearce said the city could never afford the $300,000 ProjectDox software on its own. The state is letting Ketchum use it for free. As a tradeoff, the state has moved one of its employees, Cedric "Suds" Knehans, into Ketchum to replace the city's building inspector, Dennis Keierleber.

"It's not our intent to change your working relationship," Pearce said.


She said contractors can still walk in and talk to the city's building official.

City Administrator Gary Marks said the city would retain its building department at the same size, just contracting for services. The contract is very similar to the city's contract with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, which now runs the Ketchum Police Department using its officers but keeping the department intact.

"It's still Ketchum's program. We're just offering our services," said Pearce, who admitted it would benefit the division by providing more work and preventing division cuts.

The state will still be paying Knehans, but it will also be taking a monthly cut of the building permits coming through the city to cover its costs. By law, the division can only cover its costs. The division's cut is 85 percent if the city pulls in up to $8,000 in a month, 57 percent of up to $16,000, 18 percent of up to $100,000 and 3 percent in the rare event that the city pulls in more than $100,000 in a month.

Marks said the sliding scale is needed to cover the division's fixed costs, which stay relatively constant regardless of permit amounts.

He said he compared the expenses and revenues of the past few years—consisting of busy and slow times for construction—and Ketchum always comes out ahead using the division contract.

"Whether it was a boom year or a bust year, we saved about $50,000," he said.

Marks said that although the savings are a plus, they weren't the original intention of the switch. He said the city has approved several luxury hotel projects totaling $2 billion in construction value, but has yet to see any of them apply for a building permit. When they do, the city will be inundated. Marks said he went to Pearce to see what could be done to prepare. They eventually came up with the idea of a partnership, the first of its kind in Idaho. Pearce said Boise is using ProjectDox, but not through the division. He said Boise bought the $300,000 program because it receives enough applications to justify the expense.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said his first reaction to the partnership was similar to that of the valley's builders.

"When Gary first brought this to me, I had trepidation," Hall said of the not-yet approved contract.

He said he soon realized the city would experience "no loss of service, no cost and still have a man on the ground."

If approved by the City Council, the contract will have a six-month trial period.

Trevon Milliard:

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