Terrebonne Government, South Central Planning, have permit deal

Terrebonne Parish administration and the South Central Planning and Development Commission have reached a tentative agreement on plan review and inspection services in the parish.

Parish President Gordon Dove and SCPDC CEO Kevin Belanger have reached a deal that will keep inspections and plan reviews related to building permits with SCPDC while also keeping permit rates where they currently stand. The parish council’s Budget and Finance Committee was set to vote on approving the deal at Monday’s committee meeting as of press time, while Belanger was meeting with leaders from other parishes to get their approval of the new plan for inspections.

The agreement would address the main concerns of Dove, who wanted permit rates to remain the same, and Belanger, who sought certainty in the SCPDC’s budget. Under the deal, Terrebonne Parish would pay the SCPDC, a regional planning commission created by the state that services multiple parishes and municipalities, a flat rate $640,000 per year to handle inspection and plan review services in the parish. The figure is based on Terrebonne’s portion of the inspection services the SCPDC provided last year.

Currently, the SCPDC provides inspection services and receives 20 percent of the parish’s revenues from building permits, with Terrebonne keeping the remaining 80 percent. As permits have gone down in turn with a sluggish local economy, the SCPDC’s revenues in Terrebonne have dropped. The new agreement would leave 100 percent of the permit revenues in Terrebonne’s hands while the flat rate would provide guaranteed money for the SCPDC to cover its costs. Belanger said he has been speaking with other parish presidents to present proportional flat fees with each parish and expressed optimism about their approval.

The agreement would avoid a rise in permitting costs for commercial building in Terrebonne, the main sticking point for Dove. The SCPDC was planning on changing its rates on permits for larger, commercial buildings across the entire region. The current rate is 60 cents per square foot or $3 per $1,000 in building value, whichever costs less. Belanger and the SCPDC proposed doing away with the $3/$1,000 rate and going to a flat rate of 50 cents per square foot for commercial buildings, while reducing residential building rates to 45 cents per square foot. Belanger said the proposed rates would bring uniformity to commercial permitting costs and provide a better safeguard against any builders bringing in a bogus contract with a deflated property value to reduce permit costs.

Dove said the new rates would greatly increase permit costs for commercial builders in the parish at a time when the local economic slowdown was already hampering new construction in Terrebonne. He said he understood the SCPDC’s position in needing more revenue but was adamant in refusing to allow any raise in rates at this time.

“We cut back to sustain the big loss in revenue that we had. I am not as a parish president going to go up one nickel on a permit in Terrebonne Parish as long as I’m president of Terrebonne Parish,” Dove said. “I firmly believe that permitting should be revenue neutral. You should not make a profit off of a permit.”

Belanger said analysis of revenue under the proposed new rates showed the SCPDC would have received slightly less money from permits.

“While I agree to some degree that some permits would have received an increase, the bottom line is the ultimate sum would have been a decrease,” Belanger said.

With the proposed agreement between Terrebonne and the SCPDC, Terrebonne will have total control over setting its own permit rates while the SCPDC is covered with the flat fee for its services. Dove was at one point proposing to move inspection and reviewing services in Terrebonne to the parish’s Planning and Zoning Department so the parish could control permit rates. Dove and Belanger expressed differing opinions on the parish’s ability to cover the costs for those services, with Dove saying the parish could handle the services with only two or three staff additions while Belanger said the parish would ultimately need to add more to make sure it can adequately service the entire parish.

By keeping the services with SCPDC, the proposed deal would allay the concerns of politics and favorable treatment in permitting. Joey Yesso, president of the Terrebonne Home Builders Association, said he wished for inspection and plan reviews to stay with the SCPDC to insulate building from politics. Robbie Liner, a local contractor, spoke at the Budget and Finance Committee’s March 20 meeting, when the committee first considered but did not approve all of the motions which would have begun the process of bringing inspection within Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. Liner also expressed concern about builders being able to curry favor and receive favorable permitting if Terrebonne were to take over inspections.

“When you start putting so many different entities in government, and you got the good old boy syndrome coming back to Terrebonne – which we worked so hard to get away from – so I am firmly behind South Central Planning keeping everybody on the same playing field,” Liner said.

Dove said politics could happen at the SCPDC as well just by nature of builders getting to know inspectors and permitting officials. He said his proposed plan of adding inspectors would likely result in bringing in those same officials from the SCPDC who would be laid off.

“If we move into this and we do it through this department, [the SCPDC] claim they’re going to let three or four people go. So we would hire two or three of them. The same people they’re dealing with over there they’ll deal with over here,” Dove said.

The proposed agreement between the SCPDC and Terrebonne would give the parish flexibility in getting out of the deal. Either party can terminate the agreement, to last one year, by giving a 30-day notice about its intentions. Dove said he is going to closely monitor the parish’s permitting revenues under the new deal, and if revenues are lagging behind the pace of the $640,000 flat fee, he would pull out of the deal to avoid deficit spending. Under such a scenario, Terrebonne would then move inspection and review within the parish. Belanger said the SCPDC is willing to accept the 30-day notice stipulation for the sake of the deal.

“We would be willing to sign further if that was the need. We’re willing to go 30 days at a time if that’s what they want to do,” Belanger said. “My job is to appease [Dove] and to offer to him other options that are viable. That’s what we’ve done, and he’s accepted that one viable option.”

At the March 20 committee meeting, Liner asked the parish council to consider the many residential builders who are satisfied with the SCPDC’s work when they vote on the measures.

“If it works for us, and we’re not complaining, then why change it? It can’t be just about money; it has to work,” Liner said.

South Central PlanningKARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES