Citizens question building permit fees

Published 7:22 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2012

About 20 citizens attended a Tuesday called meeting of the Decatur County Planning Board to voice their concerns about building permit fees and other issues with the County Planning Department.

The issue came to light recently, when citizen Wade Powell addressed county commissioners at their Tuesday, Feb. 28, meeting. Powell said he had to pay a permit fee of $2,100 for an agricultural storage building that would have cost him $365 to permit in the City of Bainbridge. According to Powell, the same building would have cost nothing to permit in Grady or Seminole counties.

At that meeting, commissioners said they would begin working on the issue immediately, and Tuesday’s meeting was the first step in that process.

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Rick McCaskill, the executive director of the Bainbridge-Decatur County Industrial Development Authority, spoke early during Tuesday’s meeting about the importance of fixing the problem. He said some prospective businesses have been hesitant to build in Decatur County because of high fees and too many regulations.

“We don’t have to be the cheapest fees around, but we also don’t have to be the most expensive,” McCaskill said. “Let’s meet somewhere in the middle. We just don’t want to be ‘out-of-whack’ compared to our neighbors. Let’s look at the entire department and see what changes need to be made to get businesses in our county and allow it to be the best it can be.”

Later in the meeting, Planning Director Paul Soudi provided audience members with several documents explaining how the county computes its permitting fees.

Soudi noted that the current permitting fee schedule, which was adopted by the Board of Commissioners in 2009, bases its fees on square footage for “new construction and additions.” The formula is as follows: residential (heated), $0.26 per square foot; residential (unheated), $0.19 per square foot; commercial, $0.25 per square foot; industrial, $0.26 per square foot; and storage, $0.19 per square foot.

Several citizens questioned why the county could not adopt flat rate fees, or a different system altogether, but Planning Board Chairman Dean Free explained that Tuesday’s meeting was meant for informational purposes. The Planning Board will hold a work session next Tuesday, March 27, at 1:30 p.m., at the County Administration Building. and will begin considering possible changes at that time. Any changes recommended by the planning board would first have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners.

“Right now, we’re just trying to see where we are,” Free said. “We can discuss why we’re here, at another meeting.”

Soudi also presented a section of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (Section 48-13-9), which tasks municipalities with collecting building permit fees. According to that section, municipalities can seemingly use a variety of methods to determine fees, including flat rates, an hourly rate or a rate that is based on square footage, among others.

Soudi also provided several permitting fee schedules for the City of Bainbridge and several surrounding counties. In most cases, those schedules were based on the valuation of the new construction. For example, in the City of Bainbridge, construction valued at $1,000 and less has a permit fee of $20 for each inspection. Construction valued at $1,001 to $50,000 has a fee of $20 for the first $1,000 plus $5 for each additional $1,000; construction valued at $50,001 to $100,000 has a fee of $265 for the first $50,000 plus $4 for each additional $1,000; and so on.

In Seminole County, there is no fee for $1,000 or less; for construction valued at $1,001 to $50,000, the fee is $15 for the first $1,000 plus $4 for each additional $1,000; and so on. Of the examples Soudi provided — City of Bainbridge, Seminole County, Early County, Lee County, Miller County and Grady County — only Grady also based its building permit fees on square footage. Their rates were considerably lower, however, and included: residential, $0.09 per square foot; commercial, $0.08 per square foot; industrial, $0.07 per square foot. Early County’s schedule was the simplest of all — a $75 flat fee for any building/zoning permit.

Planning Board members in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting included Free, Vice Chairman David Conoly, and members Charles Hadsock, Alan Davis, Kelvin Bouie and June Faircloth.

Several citizens also spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, including Paul Johnson, a veterinarian and dairy farmer. He said his milk is a commodity and has a pre-set price, so he has to absorb any excess fees that are charged by the county.

“As a representative of agriculture, it’s getting harder and harder to survive when we’re stuck paying these high fees,” he said. “Unlike some businesses, we can’t pass that burden on to anyone else, because our prices are set in stone.”

Frank Meighan, a local builder, said he recently had to pay more than $1,000 in fees for building a simple one-bedroom house in Decatur County.

“I’ve never had to write a check to the [City of Bainbridge] for more than $1,000 for any construction I’ve done in the city,” he said.

McCaskill also cautioned the planning board to not exclusively focus on the fee schedule, but to look at all aspects of the department.

“We need to look at the entire thing,” he said. “The high fees are hard to stomach, sometimes, but the worst thing is getting hassled and shut down when you have a project going. That costs way more than a permit fee.”