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Enough is enough: time to scrap building inspection, fee structure in City of Ely

Hats off to Ely council member Paul Kess for shining the light on an issue that certainly needs more scrutiny and investigation - the city of Ely’s stringent requirements and exorbitant costs for building permits and inspections.
It’s hard to conceive how Ely’s annual building inspection expense of more than $135,000 is justified - when a review by Kess released this week showed that some neighboring communities don’t spend anything close.
And in some cases, including right next door in the Town of Morse, there’s absolutely no expense at all.
Need new siding, a deck, or a water heater in Morse Township? Simply call your contractor and get the ball rolling.
But in Ely, homeowners are saddled with hefty permit fees, and at the end of the year the city government has an eye-popping, almost incomprehensible bill.
How incomprehensible? Try $35 an hour, 32 hours a week and up to an 85 percent cut on all permit fees collected.
We’ve heard the rationale before that the current inspection procedure and the city’s adoption of the state building code were needed to protect property owners from being ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.
At first glance, that sounds reasonable, but a closer look pokes giant-sized holes in that argument.
First, homeowners have other legal means to pursue scam artists. And in a small community like Ely, it wouldn’t take long for word to spread if a contractor is doing faulty work.
There’s also no evidence at all of problems in communities that have not adopted the code and do not require building permits for a wide-range of seemingly routine maintenance, upkeep and improvement.
A look at a map shows that Ely stands out and is one of a relatively few communities that have adopted a building code prevalent in the Twin Cities metro area. City officials need to be reminded this is Ely, not Edina.
And even among the handful of area communities that have adopted the code, none are paying the bills the size of Ely.
Two Harbors and Chisholm are paying an inspector about $19,000 and $35,000, respectively, while Silver Bay has the unique approach of requiring full-blown inspections only for significant projects, while keeping fees and costs down for the more typical home improvements.
Make no mistake about it, both the permit fees and the inspection contract itself are a hit on Ely’s residents.
It’s no secret that household incomes within the city limits, as well as property values, pale in comparison to the township.
Yet it’s city residents who are hit with big-time surcharges for improving their properties - in the form of costly permits - while township residents avoid the hit to their pocketbook and all of the red tape.
We join Kess in saying the closer review is not a reflection on those conducting the inspections, either now or in the past. They’ve provided a professional service. The question is whether it’s needed to the level and cost it has reached in Ely.
The numbers are convincing that enough is enough, and council members have an opportunity now to correct a mistake and not enter into another contractual agreement that damages the city and burdens its residents.
Tabling the matter this week was a good first step. Now it’s time for more thorough exploration and a better, less expensive, less burdensome permit system in Ely.

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