State College

Initial feelings mixed on best relationship between State College and regional code office

Five options to address the relationship between the borough and the Centre Region Code Agency will propel discussion next month on whether State College will withdraw from the agency at the beginning of 2014.

The Borough Council voted to do so in December, after staff recommended consideration of the issue earlier that month. At that time, the council also asked Council of Governments staff to respond by the end of February to concerns about duplication of services between the two entities and confusion from residents attempting to work with both.

At that time, Manager Tom Fountaine advocated for a borough-only approach to handling code functions, including rental permits and new construction permits.

The council could reverse the December decision, and members have said they plan to do so before the COG budget process starts this summer.

COG Executive Director Jim Steff submitted a final 37-page document to the borough Feb. 28, and council members have received copies. While it was on their April 1 meeting agenda for discussion, Councilman Peter Morris suggested during a work session Friday that it be moved first to the April 8 work session.

Morris said he didn’t want to push the issue too far into the year but that he didn’t feel ready yet to vote on the issue again. Staff also are working on a recommendation, but have yet to finalize it.

Councilman Tom Daubert agreed, also suggesting tentatively scheduling a vote for the May 6 meeting.

“Let’s not leave that fluid,” he said. “There are too many people interested in this.”

Along with council members, that includes COG staff and other Centre Region elected officials who discussed drafts of Steff’s report over the past few months.

The report’s five models, labeled as “flexible,” are as follows:

•  Model A: The borough creates its own code department, taking over operation of the existing structure, new construction and fire safety programs.

•  Model B: The borough and COG staffs meet to discuss and address issues of council concern.

•  Model C: The borough takes over all rental housing inspections, while the Code Agency remains responsible for the fire and new construction programs.

•  Model D: The borough takes over responsibility for the Property Maintenance Code for homes and duplexes converted to rental uses, and contracts rental inspections to a third party, which could be COG. The Code Agency continues to operate the fire and new construction programs.

•  Model E: The Code Agency would regulate most rental housing activity, cross-training staff to enforce additional borough ordinances. The agency would also continue to operate the fire and new construction programs.

“We think any of the models would work,” Steff said last week. “The one, at least at a staff level, that we would prefer, is to sit down and identify the borough’s concerns and try to respond to those.”

The report includes a scope of services to the borough. New construction totaled $32 million last year, about $27 million in 2011 and about $28 million in 2010.

Under the existing structures program, the borough has 9,843 permitted rental units. The fire safety program provides fire safety education and fire safety inspections and permits. It issues 725 permits annually in the borough, out of 1,810 in the region.

Expected regional impacts also are explained, should the borough let stand the current withdrawal vote. Financially, Steff said rental housing permits could increase from $30 to between $60 and $80 per unit. Because the Code Agency is self-supporting, losing the borough’s rental units also would eliminate those permit fees.

Fire permit fees also would be expected to increase. The current fees range from $28 to $669 per inspection and could increase to between $52 and $1,277.

Perhaps of most concern to the region’s townships is that municipal contributions to COG could increase. The Code Agency pays a share of the COG budget and the other municipalities may need to pay the difference in the borough’s absence.

Other potential impacts listed in the report include higher insurance rates for property owners, challenges to workload management due to a reduction of rental housing staff and a diminished ability to support the regional fire program.

Between receiving the final report and the next formal discussion, some council members didn’t want to comment on the report’s contents or a preferred model. Councilwomen Cathy Dauler and Sarah Klinetob said they preferred not to comment until they analyze it further and discuss it with the entire council.

Council President Don Hahn said he thinks the report probably contains many things with which members agree. While he didn’t want to identify a particular model of choice, he said record-keeping should stay in the borough.

“The idea of having a mix of going to the COG for a rental permit and going to the (borough) Health Department for grass and sidewalk issues does tend to get rather confusing,” he said. “Though I think the COG definitely puts up a rather good argument about its record for fire safety, as well as the potential impact that the borough’s withdrawal would have on the agency.”

Morris called the list of models “good” and said he tentatively leans toward Model D, which places the home conversions to rentals in the borough’s control. He praised Steff’s understanding of concerns related to conversions and the borough’s desire to better track them.

“The worst thing we could do, I think, is take over the whole thing,” said Morris, who opposed the council’s vote to do so, along with Hahn. “I think that’s kind of a nightmare.”

The borough’s Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, which has worked with staff and the council related to concerns about, in particular, those converted rentals, also offered comments on the report that most closely align with Model D.

Those included that the borough should be responsible for identifying rental properties and, in particular, student rentals, in residential neighborhoods.

Donna Queeney, president of the College Heights Association, submitted the comments on behalf of the coalition, and said all the neighborhoods wanted the same things.

“I think we’ve been at it long enough now, all of us in our neighborhoods,” she said. “Some don’t have problems yet, but can see them coming. It’s not at all a criticism of COG, it’s more a feeling that all of the responsibility needs to be housed in one entity, and that’s the borough.”

Near the opposite end of the range of models, Daubert said Thursday, if he voted that day, he would pick Model A, which confirms the previous council vote to withdraw completely from the COG program.

“I think some of their people are very, very good, but that things aren’t being done to our satisfaction, and it’s hard to fix that,” he said. “I think this report tries to scare people.”