Committee of the Whole: Inspector Defends Services; Retiree Health Care on Chopping Block

About once a month, the Lowell City Council holds a Committee of the Whole prior to its regular meeting. These work sessions typically focus on one or two issues. Last night, the topics were the city’s building inspection service and retiree health care.

All councilmembers were present although Greg Canfield recused himself from the discussion about Cascade Inspection Services, noting his business receives permits and inspections from them. To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, he left the room during that portion of the agenda.

City Use of Cascade Inspection Services Questioned

The main agenda item for the Committee of the Whole was a discussion of the contract with Cascade Inspection Services. The City of Lowell contracts with Cascade Township to issue building permits in the city and conduct inspections.

The contract for Cascade Inspection Services is scheduled to expire in June, and City Council had previously requested City Manager Mike Burns send a Request for Proposals (RFP) to determine whether a different building inspection service should be used going forward.

In previous meetings, there had been concerns raised that Cascade Inspection Services was overreaching its authority by requiring permits for improvements to the inside of a home, such as the addition of an interior wall. However, the biggest concern seemed to be how the contractor handled requirements in the historic district. “The only complaints I’ve heard are about the historic buildings,” Burns said.

In sending the RFP, it appeared the council’s intent may have been to find an inspection service that has more extensive experience working with historic districts and one that would be more willing to find solutions to rehabilitate old buildings without making the process cost-prohibitive. It has been noted that Cascade Township doesn’t have a historic district neither do most of the other municipalities with which Cascade Inspection Services contracts.

Cascade Inspection Services Defends Its Work

Brian Wilson, the Director of Inspections for Cascade Township, was on-hand to provide a brief presentation and answer questions. “I’m hoping we can develop a better understanding of why we do things the way we do,” he said.

According to Wilson, state codes require a permit for any interior work beyond cosmetic improvements like painting or papering walls. “If you remove drywall and expose framing, you need a permit,” he said.

As for the historic district, Wilson focused his comments on when and why owners need to install sprinkler systems if they want to convert upper floors of downtown buildings to apartments. He said that seemed to be the main concern people had in terms of permits in the historic district. Wilson added that there are ways to incrementally make changes to a building to limit the need for expensive upgrades and that sprinkler systems were only required on the floor being renovated.

However, councilmember Marty Chambers said it was more than that. Chambers, who owns Red Barn Consignment & Antiques in the historic district, tried to convert his upper floor to living space two years ago. “I was told I needed to be fully fire suppressed and dry wall my [main floor] ceiling,” Chambers said. The cost for the work would be $65,000 and require him to close his store for one month while the dry wall was being installed. He subsequently dropped his plans for the renovation.

Wilson seemed to agree that Chambers shouldn’t have been told to dry wall the ceiling but was adamant that the problem didn’t lie with Cascade Inspection Services. “It’s not our fault,” he said. “We didn’t get enough information.”

That seemed to be the crux of Wilson’s argument; Cascade wasn’t too blame for business owners who failed to get proper plans and provide full information to an inspector. He noted another business owner has spent a year going back and forth with Cascade Inspection Services about renovations to his building, but Wilson said the owner, not the inspector, was responsible for the delays.

Although the specifics of the other case referenced aren’t known, Chambers said he had plans drawn up by an architect familiar with the Rehabilitation Code and still ran into trouble. “It’s hard enough to put $300,000 in a building, and you get $2,000 prints drawn up and then be told that’s not right,” Chambers said.

He noted there is a lack of consistency in the answers Main Street business owners receive from Cascade Inspection Services, with some buildings being approved to keep historic features and others being told to cover them up.

Again, Wilson said the problem was not with his service. “I can’t design a building. I’m not an architect,” he said. Cascade Inspection Services apparently does not provide advice or offer suggestions on how to meet code requirements. “That’s why we always encourage people to do their homework and get with an architect.”

City Council Rescinds RFP

Mayor Mike DeVore mounted a vigorous defense of Cascade Inspection Services. He likened the contracted service provider to a city employee and said the city never should have sent out a request for bids on a new contract. “I don’t think we should have done the RFP in the first place,” he said. “Honestly, I think it’s kinda insulting.”

DeVore added that there had been no complaints about the price of services through Cascade Inspection Services – which is a not-for-profit entity – or their accessibility. He also thought it was in the city’s best interest to use Cascade since it also contracted with Lowell Township, Vergennes Township and the Lowell Area Fire Authority.

“Obviously, I was directed to do this, and I did what I was told,” Burns said of issuing the RFP. He added that he too felt positive about the work performed by Cascade Inspection Services.

Chambers also had a positive comment for the firm. “I just know that when we’re doing new buildings, you’re great to work with,” he told Wilson, “but we’re struggling with these older buildings.”

In the end, DeVore thought the current issues could be addressed through better communication and made a motion to rescind the RFP for bids for inspection services, apparently paving the way for the contract with Cascade Inspection Services to be renewed in June. The motion passed with all present voting yes.

Future Retiree Health Care Benefits in Question

Although not on the agenda initially, retiree health care was added as a second topic to the Committee of the Whole.

Burns noted a change in state law requires municipalities to fully fund their retiree health care benefits in advance. Currently, the city uses a “pay as you go” model since it only has a few retirees at a time. A system of advanced funding would apparently be financially untenable for the city.

“Most communities have basically eliminated the retiree health care benefit going forward,” Burns said, and he expected to make that recommendation to City Council at a future meeting.

Under the expected proposal, retiree health care benefits would be eliminated for anyone hired on or after September 6, 2016, the date of the city manager’s hire. While this initially seemed to preclude Burns from receiving retiree health care benefits, he later said, “Personally, it doesn’t impact me because I already have retiree health care from a former employer.”

Burns also said he would be recommending a change in the health plan for employees and retirees. The city could save $130,000 by switching from a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plan to one with a Health Savings Account (HSA). The latter plan has a high deductible – a minimum of $1,350 for a single plan or $2,700 for family coverage – but also allows members to make tax deductible contributions to a HSA.

“I had this plan that’s being proposed,” Burns said. “It’s a good plan and is going to save us a lot of money.” Burns anticipates the city would cover the deductible for employees while workers would pay 20 percent of the premium.

Discussions with the employee union will begin next week, and a formal proposal to City Council will likely be made in a future Committee of the Whole meeting.

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