Centre Region Code Agency evaluates customer service, internal needs

Anyone who applied for a building permit this year will have the opportunity this fall to offer feedback about the application, plan review, inspection and other processes undertaken by the Centre Region Code Agency.

The customer satisfaction survey is the latest move by the Council of Governments to improve the services the agency provides. While some activities already were in progress, including the idea for the survey, some have taken place since January, after the State College Borough Council voted to leave the agency in December.

The vote was based on a suggestion from borough staff, citing problems with duplication of services between the codes office and the borough and complaints about confusion from residents about which agency should handle their needs.

Since then, the council has spent time discussing the issue, holding two special work sessions and narrowing down various options to three — two partial withdrawal options and complete withdrawal. Mostly recently, the council voted to send those options to its regional colleagues for consideration and notification. The partial withdrawals may require unanimous approval from the townships to change the agency’s articles of agreement.

COG Executive Director Jim Steff has encouraged the townships to discuss the matter at their own municipal meetings, and it will be up for discussion at the Sept. 23 General Forum, the meeting of all six municipalities.

The State College council has set a deadline for itself to make a decision on the withdrawal by Sept. 30. As a year’s notice is required to leave the agency, the decision would be effective Jan. 1, 2015.

Steff said it’s been a challenging year for agency morale, because of the borough discussions, but also staffing issues and “the busiest construction season in Centre County history,” which amounted to $150 million in new construction.

A 2010 third-party evaluation of the agency concluded it “has performed its duties well,” but that it needed to develop more up-to-date technology. That’s in progress after a lengthy process to choose a cloud-based software package.

Originally, that software was to include a section where customers could leave feedback. That evolved into the survey officials expect to mail to about 1,000 people in mid-September.

“During the last six months or so there have been some negative comments about the services that we provide,” Steff told the Public Safety Committee earlier this month. “I have also received very positive compliments. As a quantitative way to look at how we’re doing, we would like to do a survey of everyone who has taken out a building permit in the last nine months.”

After the initial survey, the COG expects to continue seeking feedback electronically.

To address staffing needs, the agency has hired temporary employees to conduct various inspections and input address data for the new software.

Several new procedures are in place to develop better customer service.

One has to do with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements in buildings. The state audits code agencies every five years on those requirements, and has offered no flexibility on non-safety measurements.

“We’ve been called out on an audit for the reflective surface of a mirror being off a quarter of an inch,” said agency Director Walt Schneider. “Accessibility was becoming excruciatingly painful.”

Elected officials agreed to send letters to state legislators asking for guidance on such tolerance issues and the agency decided to approve work that, if it does not conform to accessibility standards, are within normal construction tolerances and not related to life safety.

“We’re using normal industry standards to try to be reasonable about that, knowing we stand a chance of getting some black eyes,” Schneider said.

Another procedure requires a property owner to designate a design professional or engineer to be in charge of a commercial project. That person coordinates plan submissions to ensure that all required sheets are included, saving agency staff time.

“It’s actually sped up the process for us,” Schneider said.

Other activities include stepping up the push for “service with a smile,” holding regular meetings with representatives from the Builders Association of Central Pennsylvania, and considering contracting with the Central Keystone COG in Lewisburg to share staff and expertise when needed.

At the State College council’s August special work session on the withdrawal issue, Schneider said he was disheartened to hear from some in the community that they fear retribution if they challenge or appeal a code agency decision.

“If we felt it was happening, it wouldn’t be,” he said. “It’s not personal, it’s a job and we do the best we possibly can. They have every right to file an appeal and call me in for a second look.”

Another question the council has asked of COG is to consider the feasibility of forming a citizen board for the agency, which would report to Schneider and be similar to one already in place for Schlow Centre Region Library. An appeals board already exists, which has heard one appeal in 15 years, Schneider said.

“A lot of appeals are handled at my level,” he said. “We try to work with them. We try to figure it out.”