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Raise building permit fees in Ely? Please, council, tell us you’re joking

Ely’s city council is on the verge of taking a bad situation and making it worse. Much, much worse.
Sometime soon, perhaps Tuesday, council members could take the almost incomprehensible step of increasing building permit fees in Ely.
Even in the wake of calls at the council table that fees should be lowered, a proposal to increase most fees has come forward.
Even after revelations that the city paid a $128,000 tab for building official services last year, for a position that averaged 32 hours per week, council members are considering a plan that could increase those costs.
Late in the week, just as the Echo was going to press, some common sense emerged when mayor Chuck Novak said publicly he’d oppose increasing permit fees.
He joins Paul Kess and Al Forsman, two council members who have championed the issue, taken a leadership role and have clearly looked out for Ely residents.
As the fee issue unfolds, the data, evidence, anecdotal reports and pure horror stories continue to pile up with each passing meeting.
Firs, Kess pointed out that Ely’s expenditures for building official services are astronomical, at least in comparison to several other northern Minnesota communities.
Not long after, Forsman identified an instance in which a roofing permit in Ely costs $100 more than it does in Grand Rapids, and even a cursory review backs the growing call - yet to be heard by a council majority - that fees in Ely are too high.
The latest came from a pair of contractors, one who went so far as to contend that the current fee system “rips off” Ely residents, another who pointed out that the absurd “wage plus commission” allowance in the existing contract resulted in an $8,000 payment to the building official for six inspections of a new home.
Six inspections, $8,000.
Those numbers alone should be enough to convince city officials that something is awry with the current set-up.
Forsman made a compelling point at the council table this week when he pointed to state law that requires that fees “must be fair, reasonable and proportionate to the actual cost of the service for which the fee is imposed.”
It’s hard to justify what’s fair and reasonable about projects that lead to $8,000 or $10,000 bills for a handful of inspections, or the city’s insistence on tying fees for roofs, siding and other projects to the cost of the work being done.
Flat fees for certain types of projects are commonplace elsewhere and can certainly work in Ely.
After all, as one contractor pointed out to us, roof inspections should take the same amount of time whether the roof has 10 or 60 squares, or whether it’s 20-year asphalt single or standing seam copper.
On an issue like this, it’s easy to get lost in the details and it’s also understandable for council members to simply defer to staff and their judgement.
But that’s the easy way out, especially when staff have a massive, massive financial stake in what is being proposed. A classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse.
Council members in Ely don’t represent and aren’t elected by city staff. It’s the citizens of Ely they are accountable to, answer to, and must speak for at the table.
And when something is presented that’s clearly out of line - it’s the council that is the last line of defense. In this case, the last line of defense against what is little more than legalized extortion.
Council members made a bad decision last month by approving the building official’s contract.
Raising fees will only double down on that decision and sock it further to Ely’s property owners and taxpayers. We hope at least four people at the council table will look out for them and reject the fee increases now on the table.

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