With the recent adoption of new building codes, the city’s building inspector and code enforcement officer thinks now is the time for a fresh start in enforcing regulations.
Rob Gartner especially wants to focus on the requirement of property owners to obtain building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits for construction projects.
“In the past we’ve been a little lax on that,” Gartner said.
Around town, there have been entire residential additions that haven’t been permitted, as well as smaller projects such as roof replacement, fence construction or installation of new kitchen cabinets or water heaters.
“We got seven building permits last month. Now come on. You can’t tell me there wasn’t more work being done,” Gartner said.
Reasons for permit process
Gartner will start to crack down on projects with no permits, not only for the good of the city but also for the benefit of property owners.
He said permits ensure the job is being done right and by a licensed professional. For safety purposes, homeowners should know if a contractor is licensed to work on heat and air units, electrical systems or plumbing. People need to ensure things are done correctly even though money might be tight and they feel a need to get work done at the lowest cost possible.
“There are just things that need to happen,” Gartner said.
Gartner said a man recently got in touch with him about a home project that had gone wrong. The homeowner wanted to know if Gartner could help resolve the issue, but Gartner had to tell him it was a civil issue. If Gartner had been involved in the process from the beginning after the property owner obtained the proper permits, the issue could have been resolved before it was too late.
“We’re here to be part of their process, not a hindrance,” he said.
Even permits for fences can be beneficial to property owners. Gartner uses what he calls a perfect example to get that point across. If someone needs to determine whether a fence belongs to them or a neighbor, the city can check the building permit to find out who built the fence and therefore to which property it belongs. Gartner said if no building permit was issued, the city can’t help, and it could cost several hundred dollars to determine whose fence it is.
“The bottom line is the building permits do a lot of things. It’s not just a money grab. The building permits are dirt cheap right now,” Gartner said.
Gartner plans to stop at properties where he can see work is being done without permits.
“I will add that to my plate of things to do,” Gartner said.
A lot of roofs are being replaced around town without permits, although they are required if shingles are torn off. The building code requires no more than two layers of shingles on a roof. Gartner will start asking everyone to get permits for roofs, too. This will protect homeowners from such situations as contracting with an out-of-state, unlicensed roofer who requires half of the payment upfront but then doesn’t start or complete the job. State law requires roofers to be licensed, and the city office has a list of roofers who are licensed.
While he plans to begin enforcing the building permit requirement more heavily, Gartner doesn’t plan to start issuing fines right away. Instead he will talk to people about what work needs to be permitted and perhaps why the process is in place. He will have a sheet of projects that need to be permitted ready to hand out to people.
Gartner already has talked to some contractors about the issue. He told one what projects need to be permitted and that he will start enforcing the requirement soon. The contractor gave him a look, so Gartner explained it’s not that the city is “just putting the hammer down” on people. He gave the example about a fence without a permit, and the contractor said he had never thought about that.
“It’s a matter of getting people to understand what we want to do,” Gartner said.
Who should get a permit?
Oftentimes, people just don’t realize their projects need to be permitted. Perhaps a homeowner assumes a contractor will get a permit when needed. Contractors don’t like to interrupt their work to go downtown to get a permit. Some cities have an online application for permits, making the process user friendly, and Gartner said Parsons is looking into adding one as well.
Someone needs to be responsible for getting the building permit. Either a property owner or a contractor can obtain one. Gartner thinks the owners should get the permits, but it should be the contractors’ duty to let the owners know they need to do it.
Gartner hasn’t broached the issue with Ross Albertini, city attorney, to determine who should receive a complaint or fine, if it comes to that, or should be encouraged to get a permit — the homeowner or the person actually doing the work.
Gartner said some won’t get permits on exterior projects such as fences because they’re afraid their property valuation will rise, and in turn their taxes, but that’s not always true.
“On a county level, we don’t tax residential fences,” DeLinda White, Labette County appraiser, said.
The appraiser’s office makes note of a new fence, but residential property owners aren’t taxed for it, although commercial fences do add to valuation.
White said improvements considered regular maintenance to a home do not lead to a higher valuation. Those include new fences, roofs and flooring, deck or porch floor replacement, foundation repairs and new heating and air units if replacing an existing system of the same type. Changing from hardwood siding to brick or vinyl is considered a change in the characteristic of a home and will be noted by the appraiser’s office, White said, but it wouldn’t necessarily change the value of a home. Switching from shingles to a metal roofing may change the valuation, but not drastically.
Gartner said some people may take the opportunity to make their homes look better if they knew it wouldn’t lead to higher taxes.
When major remodeling projects or additions are completed without permits, White said the county is missing out on tax revenue if her office doesn’t know about the construction. If that happens enough, taxing units such as the county and city would have to raise their mill levies higher than otherwise would be needed, or perhaps cut back on services.
The county appraiser’s office only needs to check on every property once within six years, White said. A field appraiser will knock on a door, ask if information on the house is still accurate such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. If a property owner is not home, the appraiser may leave a door hanger asking the property owner to contact the office. If there are no minors at home alone, the appraiser may just walk around outside and check everything out.
Building permits are needed for demolition also, and the demolition of a structure actually could lead to a lower tax bill, but if the job is not permitted, the county won’t know about it. The county might not discover the missing structure for six years. Parsons does not charge for demolition permits.
Gartner said the stepped-up enforcement of the building permit requirement is part of a larger effort.
The city commission and City Manager Debbie Lamb also are getting serious about getting the town cleaned up and ensuring properties are safe and somewhat attractive, Gartner said.
The commission in April adopted the 2018 edition of the International Property Maintenance Code. The city had been using the 2006 code. The code covers mechanical, plumbing and electrical issues as well as nuisance yards and vehicles, but the update gives more detail on exterior issues.
Gartner told commissioners the new edition would make it easier for him to enforce issues dealing with broken windows and failing roofs, among other problems.
The commissioners also amended the nuisance code, simplifying the abatement process by changing notification rules. Rob Gartner said the city before the change had to wait 30 to 60 days to tow inoperable vehicles, but under the new rules, the city can tow some after only 10 days. The new ordinance also should cut down on the time the city must wait before mowing tall grass and billing the property owner.
The city has had three cleanup months during which residents can take junk items to the old city landfill to drop off for free. Gartner said people have taken advantage of the offer.
“For the most part, from my viewpoint the community is looking better,” Gartner said.
Still, there are a lot of untagged vehicles around town. Gartner found 17 in about a 20-block area recently.
In May, the commission adopted the 2018 editions of the International Building Code, the International Mechanical Code, the International Residential Code for One and Two-Family Dwellings, the International Existing Building Code, the International Plumbing Code, the International Fire Code, the International Fuel Gas Code and the 2017 National Electric Code.
Gartner thought it was important to update the city’s codes to try to raise the ISO rating for building departments.
The Insurance Service Office has long given fire ratings for cities, and more recently has started rating city building departments. Gartner said unlike ISO fire ratings, the ISO building department ratings don’t affect property insurance rates yet, but they could in the future. Parsons’ ISO building department rating is low because the codes hadn’t been updated for so long. It’s recommended that the codes are updated at least every 10 years and preferably every five years.
The codes updated this year don’t affect residential properties much, although one change is a new section on solar panels as those are becoming a more common residential feature.
Most of the changes come in multi-residential and commercial uses. One that Gartner said would have been relevant to Parsons recently is the requirement of fire suppression units for each kitchen stove in a multi-residential building. The Cardinal Villas, an apartment building constructed a few years ago near Labette Community College, was required to have hood systems vented outside but no fire suppression units. Gartner said that requirement probably would have added quite a bit of expense to the building but also would have added to the residents’ safety.
Another change Gartner found interesting was the addition of standards for staples used as fasteners in commercial projects. Staples are becoming more common in place of nails, which already had standards.
Another change for institutional properties is the requirement of each of two emergency lights near an exit put off the same foot-candle light if one goes out.