By Susan Reeves
The Optic-Herald recently received a letter signed by City Manager Lee Elliott blaming the newspaper for all the ill will related to the city permit fees. He stated that the editorial written in June 2010 was the root cause of the problem.
It has been the job of newspapers to notify citizens of governmental actions since the United States Constitution was ratified by the states in 1788. The newspaper may have brought the issue to the attention of the citizens, but the subsequent unrest has been perpetuated by the City.
All the hoopla is centered around the City of Mount Vernon outsourcing its building inspection function because it could not afford the salary of a qualified inspector. Bureau Veritas in Plano, who according to Mr. Elliott is one of the best companies in the inspection business, was contracted to take over those duties for the City. With that action came an increase in fee cost that in some cases went up 900 percent. The permit fee to replace an air conditioning system went from $20 in 2009 to $179 in June 2010 and is now $168. The steep increase is what upset the citizens.
The council revisited the situation in January and lowered some of the fees. The City removed fences, roofs, and driveways out of the general permits and set a $25 fee for those. It also set a cap of $60 for senior citizen’s homestead property. That action has eased some of the tension, but many are still grumbling about the other fees.
Regularly, when questions are raised about the permit fees, Mr. Elliott and members of the council turn the discussion to all the hard work and good things they have enacted in the past several years. Getting the water pipes replaced, doing projects at the water treatment plant and the sewer treatment plant, using solar panels and selling excess energy back to the grid, and building up our police fleet have been accomplished without raising taxes. That is all great and their work is appreciated on those fronts.
Mr. Elliott has explained that the change to the permitting function came out of the City’s attempt to departmentalize revenues and expenses. The goal was to have water and sewer service income cover that department’s cost, and have other cost centers do the same. Fees and rates were adjusted so that those who utilize certain services pay for them. Through this action, the city council lowered the tax rate by 12.9 percent. Council members seem to be bewildered that citizens have not jumped up and down with excitement.
Overall, the average citizen has not enjoyed much of a cost savings from the council’s actions. A person owning property appraised at $100,000 would have paid $666.04 in 2008 for city taxes. In 2009, it would have been $700.78, and it was $621.48 in 2010. That is almost $80 in savings this year, but only $40 from the previous year. In 2010, a new monthly fee of $3 for residential and $6 for commercial properties was added to everyone’s water bill to deal with storm water runoff. That $36/$72 per year fee helps the water/sewer department fund its operation. For those who have had to pay a permit fee, there is not any saving.
The need for doing inspections and keeping the citizens safe is an obvious one. People have not objected to the need for a permit. They have objected to the cost of current permit fees in comparison with other communities in the East Texas area.
Mr. Elliott has said that the City looked into utilizing inspectors from area cities, but they would not commit to performing the site visits in a timely manner.
Basically, the whole argument comes down to two choices. One, paying a higher fee with a 24 hour commitment to conduct inspections so that projects can continue without delay. Or, two, paying a lower fee and dealing with inspection delays. The citizens are not happy with either solution.