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Contractors: It’s difficult to do work in Baltimore

BALTIMORE – An effort 15 months ago to fix a problem is having the opposite effect.

Ace Hardware store owner Rick Foreman asked three Baltimore contractors to come to Monday night’s council meeting to explain their frustrations with the City of Lancaster’s Certified Building & Zoning Department.

The Village of Baltimore turned over building code inspections to Lancaster’s department effective Jan. 1, 2014. Previously the village had used contract inspectors. Contractors had difficulty in getting them to inspect work on a timely basis.

Village Administrator Scott Brown said building projects generate about $17,000 a year in fees so the out-of-town contract inspectors often waited until they could make several inspections in one trip. “Lancaster looked like a great opportunity,” he explained.

Foreman said the department is overzealous, adding to the cost and difficulty of doing work in the village. He also said the code adapted by Lancaster doesn’t make “nice, high quality” houses.

Baltimore contractor Ralph Talbert said he is about to lose $75,000 – $80,000 worth of business. “It’s just not worth the effort.”

“It is fitful to get anything accomplished,” Talbert added. “They are almost unapproachable.” He said it is now as difficult to build in Baltimore as Lancaster. Talbert said architectural drawings are now being required for a new garage, adding hundreds to the cost.

Talbert emphasized, “I’m not asking for favors, just fairness.”

Long-time contractor Mike Schreyer said the village has taken on “too many restrictions” by using the Lancaster department and the 2013 national code that it has adopted. “I can’t build now what my customer wants,” Schreyer added.

Contractor Kirk Kavander said the energy audit requirement is particularly limiting. “Why do they care what your utility bill is going to be?”

Foreman noted that the proportion of owner-occupied houses in Baltimore is falling and with it the quality of the village’s housing. Efforts to reverse that trend are made much more difficult by the department’s stringent and costly rules.

“How do you fix this?” council member Tony House asked.

“More regulations don’t fix it,” Foreman replied. “There has to be at least a baseline,” he added. “The less the best.”

Mayor Bobby Kalish and council members decided to turn the issue over to their Safety Committee. The committee set a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 9, to discuss it.

“I think we can work to make it work,” Brown said. He noted that projects involving less than 200 square feet don’t require a building permit. One option would be to increase the exclusion so most room additions or other relatively small projects don’t require a building permit.

“We don’t want to discourage people from fixing up their homes,” council member Dwayne Mohler said.

“We need to make room additions affordable,” Kalish added.

In other business Monday night, Brown announced that the sidewalk grant application has been completed and is available on the village’s website. The village has budgeted $5,000 for grants this year to encourage property owners to repair or replace sidewalks on their property. The grants are a 30 percent cost reimbursement up to a maximum of $500 and will be awarded on a first come, first served basis.

Brown said the Basil shelter house is being upgraded. The meeting room and kitchen have been painted. New trim is being installed in the kitchen. The bathrooms are being reconfigured with new fixtures installed. Appliances are being cleaned and painted. Part of the kitchen floor is being replaced as is some of the plumbing.

In his report, Kalish said there was a “decent turnout” for the first of two public meetings about the Neighborhood Revitalization Program grant. A survey will be mailed to each village household next week asking what projects they would like to see funded. Surveys should be returned by Friday, March 13, in the stamped, self-addressed envelope provided.

Attendance at the public meetings and the number of surveys returned affect the village’s points in the grant evaluation process. “We need as many faces as possible,” council member Jim Hochradel said.

Kalish said he had been contacted about the former Dairy Mart and later Snack Box property at the intersection of Ohio 256 and Ohio 158. A dental practice will be taking over the entire building which was recently remodeled.

Council’s Finance Committee met before the regular meeting to discuss how to finance the $1.5 million upgrade of the water treatment plant. The plant was built in 1935 and last upgraded in 1974. A new plant would cost $5.4 million.

Village water customers currently pay a $10 per month charge for debt service. That surcharge generates $166,000 a year which is currently generating a $70,000 surplus as debt service has dropped to $96,000 a year. Brown expects the upgrade to add about $96,000 to the annual debt service. While the upgraded plant will operate more efficiently, council members are discussing a small rate increase to generate the expected $96,000 in annual debt service at least until the extent of the savings from the upgraded plant can be quantified.

Committee members didn’t make any recommendation Monday night, but did agreed to recommend that Brown move ahead with financing the upgrade with a 20-year loan from Peoples National Bank. Brown said the bank with a local branch offered better terms that the Ohio Water Development Authority.

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