The Town of Maggie Valley decided Monday to lay off its building inspector after already trimming 10 hours off his weekly schedule earlier this year.
Town Manager Tim Barth said there was a strong economic case to discontinue the town’s building inspections department since the county provides the same service.
Smaller towns often opt to go through a county building inspector rather than employing their own. Waynesville and Canton have their own inspections departments, but Sylva and Bryson City do not.
After the recession hit and building activity plummeted, the town has had to increasingly subsidize the department.
Barth estimates that the town will spend $50,000 to prop up the department in the 2009-2010 fiscal year — a number that has been on the rise as fees from building permits have dropped. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the town spent $37,000 more than it brought in through fees, and $40,000 in 2008-2009.
“It’s just too expensive to continue to have,” said Barth. “Building activity has dropped off significantly in the last couple of years. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify having a position where the person doesn’t have as much work to do.”
Barth said the building activity may pick up, but the town may never do building inspections again if the new arrangement works out well.
Alderman Colin Edwards said the option of hiring another building inspector is not off the table in the long-term.
“If we see the need to hire another building inspector, we can do that, but right now, times are tough and we need to save the taxpayers all we can,” said Edwards.
Maggie building inspector Ron Mercier said the county could not provide the same level of service.
“I’m here all the time,” said Mercier. “I provide a much better service than the county ever could because I’m local. I care more about Maggie Valley than the county does.”
According to Mercier, the board is doing a disservice to the town by eliminating his position.
“They’re not lowering the taxes but are taking away services,” Mercier said.
Conflict of interest?
Mercier’s supporters suspect personal motives are a factor in the town’s move, but Edwards disagrees.
The town’s motives are strictly economic, he said.
According to Edwards, the decision had nothing to do with a complaint against the building inspector brought to the town in October. The decision to cut Mercier’s hours came in July.
“We’ve been thinking about this, probably four or five months,” said Edwards.
The October complaint was brought forward by Jim Redmond, who owns Leatherwood Cottages, where Edwards has a cottage.
Redmond demanded the town reimburse him for $300 after Mercier mistakenly told him to remove and reinstall wiring for a pavilion at Leatherwood Cottages.
According to town minutes, Redmond said he’d also heard several complaints against Mercier and asked the town to let Mercier go.
Alderwoman Saralyn Price said at the meeting that Barth should take over the matter since it was a personnel issue, which is usually handled by the town manager.
Edwards claims the wiring issue played no role whatsoever in the town’s move toward shutting down the inspections department. The cost, which was split up among 17 cottage owners, was not significant.
“That ain’t never cost nobody nothing,” said Edwards.
Edwards repeated that only the recession was driving the decision.
“We’re losing so much money having a building inspector, and we’re trying to trim the fat,” Edwards said.
Defending the inspector
While contractors in other towns usually complain about building inspectors who help enforce codes, those in Maggie Valley actually came to Mercier’s defense.
Several spoke up at last week’s town meeting to ask the town to keep the building inspections department.
“Once the economy starts picking up, we’re going to get slammed here,” said Torry Pinter, a general contractor who spoke at the meeting.
“Just because the economy’s down and the building is down...using personal vendettas or personal problems as a reason to get rid of Ron is not right,” said Burton Edwards, a planning board member and Colin Edwards’ cousin.
Burton added Maggie Valley had no right to annex territory if it did not make an effort to support code enforcement.
“If we’re going to annex and we’re going to grow, we’re going to need a building inspector,” said Burton.
According to Burton, getting rid of the building inspector while there’s no building activity is akin to getting rid of a fire truck because there were no fires last year.
“If it’s a money issue, find a way to keep him please,” said Burton.
Meanwhile Kyle Edwards, owner of the Stompin’ Ground and Colin Edwards’ uncle, said the town could come up with the money to support the department if it wanted to.
Kyle added that the building inspector helps homebuyers, home builders, the town board, the mayor, and everyone else in town.
Sometimes, people get upset when the building inspector does his job and goes by the books, Kyle said.
According to Colin Edwards, the primary responsibility for enforcing codes rests with Nathan Clark, the town planner.
“We put that on Ron to help Nathan,” said Colin.
The town board held a meeting on Monday and went into closed session to discuss personnel issues.
After coming out of closed session, board members engaged in a “brief discussion” and passed a motion to move forward with eliminating the building inspection department, Barth said.
The town board was careful to not discuss the topic in closed session, according to Barth.
According to N.C. Open Meetings Law, an elected board can discuss an employee’s performance in closed session, but they can’t talk about general issues of town operations. Barth said the town did not discuss eliminating the building inspections department in closed session.