State College rejects withdrawal from regional codes agency

jvanderk@centredaily.comOctober 21, 2013 

— After nine months of discussions and votes at regular meetings, special meetings and regional meetings, the Borough Council voted Monday night to remain in the Centre Region Code Agency.

Members voted 4-3 against fully withdrawing from the regional program, which handles rental housing permits, new construction permits and fire inspections in the Centre Region.

Council members Tom Daubert, Cathy Dauler and Ron Filippelli voted for full withdrawal. Don Hahn, Sarah Klinetob, Peter Morris and Jim Rosenberger opposed doing so.

Instead, the council unanimously passed Hahn’s motion to request that the Council of Governments provide information on the cost and logistics of turning over rental housing permits to the borough and cross-training COG staff to assist the borough with zoning and other ordinance enforcement. The motion also asks that the code agency director provide quarterly reports on cooperative enforcement for two years.

Since last December, when the council first voted to withdraw from the regional program because of duplication issues and confusion about to whom permit holders should report, among other issues, the council and the rest of the region’s officials have debated the situation.

That culminated with Monday night’s vote. The council had until the end of the year to make a withdrawal decision effective Jan. 1, 2015.

COG Executive Director Jim Steff attended the meeting but did not speak. He said he was relieved and that COG staff would work to meet the council’s requests.

The vote gives staff the opportunity to address borough concerns. Not doing so previously was Steff’s one regret throughout the myriad discussions, he said earlier in the day.

The council previously considered partial withdrawal options, which would have required approval by the other five COG municipalities. A majority of officials last month opposed allowing that approach, though Halfmoon and Harris townships have, at times, only participated partially in the code agency.

Klinetob said she still supports a hybrid approach and suggested the council draft a “clearer proposal” and have a second go at gaining regional acceptance.

“I think the scale of our impact is one that we didn’t fully explore and seems very scary,” she said.

Those impacts could have included a jump in rental housing permit fees from $30 to $50 and a transfer of records from the COG to the borough for the 10,000 rental properties in State College.

Morris also favored a hybrid option, and said working as a region is more important.

“It’s of overriding importance to the whole area,” he said. “Withdrawing would not kill regional cooperation, obviously — it’s stronger than that — but it would be a blow to it.”

Rosenberger suggested the COG Public Safety Committee, which discusses code and related issues, could analyze the code office and that withdrawal would cost taxpayers money.

Neighborhood association concerns also were at issue, and Rosenberger said he thinks those can be addressed with a permit check-box denoting if a home is a student home rental.

But Filippelli and Dauler said remaining with the program would go against what the neighborhoods and constituents want. Representatives in the past have expressed the desire to have rental housing permits in the borough’s control.

“When I think of the rapid response council gave to one neighborhood recently over the issue of the gas pipeline, that issue seemed to galvanize council to a response,” Dauler said. “That was one neighborhood. We’re talking about the entire community here and people over the years who have expressed real doubt and concern about how this code system has been performing.”

Daubert also said that the borough not taking control was a disservice to residents.

“They want them to be consistent, they want them to be polite, they want them to treat the people with respect, and that has not been happening,” he said.

Partially in response to those issues, the agency last month sent a customer satisfaction survey to 2013 building permit applicants. The deadline to return the surveys has passed and Steff is compiling a report.

He said that, with close to a 25 percent return, the “vast majority” of permit applicants rated their overall experience with the agency at a 4 or 5, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best.

Steff will discuss the survey in more detail at a later date, including some applicant gripes.

“So there’s going to be some priorities that are identified through this survey document that we can work on,” he said.

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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