Take back the CH Building Department

On a warm May evening last year, about 230 Cleveland Heights residents packed a meeting room at the Community Center to oppose the city’s move to lease its water system to a private, for-profit corporation. When more than 200 people show up at a meeting on short notice, you can assume each of them represents many more who were unable to be there.

City council members listened to their constituents and went back to the drawing board. As a result, in January 2017, Cleveland Heights will join more than 70 Northeast Ohio communities that get their water directly from the Cleveland Water Department, resulting in substantial savings for residents and businesses.

Flash forward a year or so. Beginning this month, the city will contract out its building department operations to Colorado-based SAFEbuilt, a private, for-profit corporation.

The building department ensures that renovations, demolitions and new construction are carried out according to code, and with the approval of the Architectural Board of Review. Its work consists primarily of issuing permits and conducting inspections. (Residential inspections, both periodic and point-of-sale, are done by the housing department.) It plays a vital role in maintaining the safety and quality of city buildings.

Leasing, outsourcing, contracting out, “public-private partnerships”—these are all forms of privatization. Privatization occurs when a public sector service or utility is transferred to the private sector, to be operated not for the public good, but for private gain.

Why, after facing strong opposition to privatizing our water, has Cleveland Heights City Council voted to privatize another vital service?

According to City Manager Tanisha Briley, Ohio’s new certification requirements for building inspectors have made it difficult to find qualified replacements as staff has shrunk due to attrition. Cleveland.com reported that the department is down from 16 employees in 2006 to one part-time inspector and one part-time secretary. The city already uses SAFEbuilt inspectors on a part-time, supplementary basis.

The building department office is generally open only three hours a day—a serious inconvenience to developers, contractors and homeowners needing to pull permits. SAFEbuilt proposes to staff the counter eight hours daily, and provide its own equipment and mobile reporting.

SAFEbuilt recently began operating the building departments in North Olmsted and Bay Village. It is a corporate sponsor of (i.e., a donor to) the Ohio City/County Management Association (OCMA), the professional organization for city managers and other local administrators, and its parent organization, the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA).

We have reason to be concerned about the step the city has taken:

  • A well-informed, vocal constituency of residents opposes privatization.
  • Money that could be put to good use will leave the community. Under city control, income from utilities, permits, user fees, etc., can fund infrastructure, amenities and services. A private company, however, must by definition maximize profits. Once its costs are met, the rest of its earnings are siphoned out of the community, into executive salaries and shareholder dividends.
  • Contracting out creates problems with accountability. With the entire department staffed by SAFEbuilt employees, how will the city maintain oversight? As anyone who has delegated responsibilities knows, someone has to make sure people do what they said they would.
  • Because corporations have a profit imperative, their objectives may fail to align with the public good in the long term. Nationally and globally, many cities have chosen to “remunicipalize” or “insource” basic services, particularly water, after negative and sometimes disastrous experiences with privatization.

Cleveland Heights has signed a three-year contract with SAFEbuilt, with terms that allow the city to opt out after one year.

According to the Sun Press, “[Mayor Cheryl] Stephens and some other council members, including Carol Roe, continue to look at the possibilities of partnering with other cities through a regional collaboration.” Briley told the Plain Dealer, "Everyone at this point is supplementing their building inspection, [so] we think this idea has real potential."

There is a precedent for shared services among suburbs. Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights and South Euclid have created the Heights-Hillcrest Council of Governments to operate a joint dispatch service for fire, police and EMS calls. While we would like to know more about how this arrangement guarantees accountability, we can say for certain that it keeps public funds in the public sector.

We urge the mayor and council to aggressively seek alternatives to leaving essential building department functions in private hands.

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer. She grew up in Cleveland Heights, and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 9, Issue 7, Posted 5:20 PM, 06.30.2016