Measure Was Expected to Pass : Lakewood Votes Down Increase in Fees

Times Staff Writer

A sharply divided City Council this week failed to pass a long-awaited increase in the cost of construction permits aimed at reducing a $58,500 yearly shortfall in the city budget.

An ordinance raising building, plumbing and electrical permit fees and adding a $30 penalty when improper or when incomplete work must be re-inspected was expected to be approved without fanfare by the City Council, said Charles K. Ebner, director of community development.

At Tuesday's council meeting, however, two of four council members voted against the fee increase because they were concerned that the ordinance only raised fees for small projects, such as home remodelings. Residents would unfairly be underwriting city administrative costs created by large contractors, they said.

The fifth council member, Marc Titel, who was expected to vote for the fee increase, was absent.

Some staff members expressed disappointment about the 2-2 vote, which killed the ordinance.

"I'm a little frustrated," said Ebner, whose department issues the various permits needed to make residential improvements as well as to begin commercial projects.

"We were surprised it worked out that way," said Assistant City Administrator Michael W. Stover. He said that the ordinance was favored by four of the five council members at previous meetings.

Councilman Wayne E. Piercy, who had initially supported raising fees, joined Councilman Robert G. Wagner in opposing it.

The ordinance will be submitted again for a full council vote when all five members are present. That could be as late as October, primarily because of summer vacations, Stover said. Ebner earlier said he hoped the vote would be routine and the new fee schedule--based on the county schedule--could be in place within 30 days as a way to help balance the city's $47.2-million, two-year operating budget.

Lakewood, one of 25 cities contracted to use county inspectors, has lost about $351,000 since 1982, said Ebner. Although the city's fees have remained among the lowest in the county, the city has paid increasingly higher costs to the county to provide inspectors, who charge $30 per hour to inspect projects in the city, he said. While the council ponders the new fee schedule, the city is losing about $6,000 per month in administrative costs paid to the county, he said.

Even higher county costs are expected in the future, Ebner said.

Inspections Required

Projects requiring county inspections range from electrical receptacles installed by homeowners to large construction projects undertaken by major contractors.

"Those costs add up," said Ebner. For instance, he said that even small projects, such as installing a hot tub in a back yard or replacing a front door, take more than one visit by a county inspector.

Installing a 4-foot block wall or covering a patio takes four inspections before final approval, said Ebner, while remodeling a kitchen or a bathroom requires five visits by a county inspector.

According to a new fee schedule proposed by Ebner, fees for projects costing under $3,000 would increase. The fees would vary depending on the the value of the work.

For example, under the new schedule, a project costing $200 would require a $12 permit. In contrast, the current cost for a permit to complete a $200 project is $5.

Council member Wagner argued that raising the fees for smaller projects could discourage homeowners from seeking permits, thereby raising the risk of safety hazards in the city.

He pointed out that a simple job costing $11 in parts, but requiring more than one permit, could cost the homeowner up to $30 in fees.

Wagner also argued that much of the cost to the city comes from major contractors, whose projects often require several inspections for each permit because they fail the first inspection, he contended.

"The fact is that you're asking the small guy, the local resident to pick up the tab," Wagner told Councilman Lawrence H. Van Nostrum, who voted for the fee hike. "It just isn't fair."

Wagner said he supported the ordinance, which includes a $30 penalty for re-inspections, only if projects under $1,000 are excluded.

"We're asking the little guy to subsidize the major contractor," said Wagner before the vote.

Ebner confirmed that much of the shortfall has been a result of major contractors who call for inspections before a phase of work is properly completed. That means that an inspector must visit the site again to inspect the work after it is correctly done.

"The re-inspection fee should teach them to be better contractors," said Ebner. He added, however, that the fee increase for the smaller projects is still necessary, even with the re-inspection assessment.

"The problem is we don't have enough developers to carry the little jobs," said Ebner.

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