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During a recent meeting of the St. Francois County Commission, County Clerk Kevin Engler brought up the issue of building permit costs and enforcement before the commission and recommended raising the cost of a building permit.

Engler explained that the building permit fee was well below the cost of issuance and only six building permits were issued in St. Francois County for 2018.

“The cost of issuance is around $20, and I’m going to recommend that we make that the fee,” he said. “The true reason we do this is not to make the assessor aware when building projects are occurring, the more important thing will be on the back end, if they don’t get the fee. Six buildings last year were not all that happened [in the county].”

Engler stressed that currently there are no penalties for not buying a building permit. This creates an enforcement problem that will be difficult to overcome.

“There is no hammer,” he said. “The way we make the hammer, is through the collector. She’s going to check next week when they have the collector’s meeting, how that some of the other counties do it. Most of them have the ability because they have a building inspector, they have a much higher rate, and they go out and inspect.”

Once an enforcement mechanism is in place, Engler is looking at a set of penalties for not obtaining a building permit.

“All we want to do, is make sure they do it, so that our assessor knows that building is going on,” he said. “Dan [Ward] and I have talked, we think that getting the $20 permit, and if you’ve already started with your foundation, and you didn’t get it, and they have to remind you to get it, then there should be a $25 penalty. And then if you have substantial completion, if the vast majority of it is done, then that will be $20 permit plus a $50 fee. The question is, how do you collect that? And that’s why we’re going to work with the collector’s office to figure out the method.”

The commission voted to increase the cost of a building permit to $20.

County building permits are obtained at the county clerk’s office. When a building permit is issued, the county clerk then notifies the county assessor and the county health department.

St. Francois County Assessor Dan Ward explained that municipalities in the county enforce their own building permits and generally keep his office updated. The problem the county faces is when building permits are not enforced in rural parts of the county.

“There’s always been a permit system in the county,” he said. “It was encouraged that anybody building a new home, we were looking at all structures, but we definitely want to know when a new home is being built in the county. We asked that they pick up a building permit [at the county clerk’s office] and post it on their property. Then our field personnel would know that there was a new structure going to be built. We would periodically go by and see if construction had begun.”

Ward noted that without a permit, the assessor’s office will have no knowledge of new construction projects and has to use alternate measures in finding out what is being built in the county.

“I brought it up several times about the new flyover maps coming out,” he said. “We had problems. Sometimes we might not find a [new] house for two years, because it would be so far back in the woods. When we passed the law for occupancy a couple of years back, then we started contacting utility companies to see if they would notify us. Some of them were fine with it, but we are on the back burner.”

Ward observed that when his office is unaware of new construction and then they finally find out about it a year or two later, it creates a cascade of tax collection and funding distribution problems for the county.

“It’s always had an effect, because you’re late at picking up that tax dollar,” he said. “The school districts would like to have their money. 70 percent [of real estate taxes] go to the schools.

“My job is to locate, list and give a value to all real estate and personal property in my jurisdiction, which is our county. If we find it late, we still get our tax dollars but we’re not getting as soon as we should have. If they’ve finished it in June of last year, and we didn’t find it until January of this year, we probably are going to put it on January of this year, because we don’t know when it was totally completed. Then we’re going back and taxing somebody the whole year back and then they have got to pay a tax that they didn’t know that had to pay because they didn’t have a bill.”

When a property owner is faced with over a year’s worth of assessments due to not obtaining a permit, Ward stressed that the expense is greater due to late penalties incurred and the potential of reducing an assessment through the appeals process is lost due to state mandated time limits.

“They missed the appeal process also as part of the law that we have to follow,” he said. “Everyone has the ability to appeal their values if they don’t agree with them. If we hit them with a tax bill that they don’t know is coming, because they are unaware of it, and don’t know how the law works, I don’t think that’s fair to the taxpayer.”

According to Ward, The assessor’s office is taking an alternative step to deal with the changes in properties throughout the county. This last winter, an airplane with special cameras flew a grid pattern over part of the county. While this has been done many times before, the new cameras are more detailed and act as an almost ‘Google Maps’ type of process showing the sides of buildings as well as from above. The company that does this also has new software to compare current mapping to previous mapping for changes in structures.

“We have a company that does our flyover maps every two or three years,” he said. “There is a part of that company called ChangeFinder. They take an older map, we give them which area we want them to look at, and they draw every building on that parcel. Then when the new flyover occurs, they redraw those buildings and do an overlay to see if there’s any difference. If there’s a barn has been built, a garage, or if a house has gotten larger because of an addition, or smaller because something was taken down.

“We are on a trial run of that right now with a rural part of the county. We originally had approximately 23,007 buildings, now we have 25,814. We may have already found them, we may not. We will go back and check on the changes.”

Unfortunately, the flyover comparisons are an added cost the county and Ward is coordinating with several municipalities and departments in the county that use the maps to help defray the expenses.

“There is a cost to this,” he said. “Right now it’s 75 cents a parcel. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re doing 20,000 parcels right now, and we have over 40,000 parcels in the whole county, and it’s going up because people are splitting land off and building houses.”

Ward explained that enforcement of permit penalties may require legislation at the state level, which would make parts of the flyover process unnecessary and save the extra cost to the county.

“If I can save money, I will,” he said. “If the permit system has a penalty phase to it and it can definitely be done through the legislature and get a bill passed, then I will not have to do this, because we will find it, but the key is how long it will take to find it.”

Rose Mier, environmental public health specialist with the St. Francois County Health Department, explained the conditions involved with septic systems if a home is built without the health department’s knowledge.

“If you are building on three acres or more, you are exempt from getting a permit from us,” she said. “If it is less than three acres, you have to come to us to get a permit.

“If there is something that gets built without our knowledge, if we find out within a year, we write them a notice of violation. That notice gives them a timeline of remediation. They have to get their soils tested by a registered soils scientist, they will submit to us an as-built plan. If that plan meets what would be required, they have to pay the $90 permit fee to the state, and then we write them a permit. If it doesn’t meet what they should have put in, they have to put in the correct system. If they don’t comply, then we can refer it to the prosecuting attorney.”

Associate County Commissioner Patrick Mullins gave an example of how county funding from other sources can be impacted by not having updated information on improvements throughout the county.

“The Semo Regional Planning Commission had information from previous records through St. Francois County and those records were not up to date,” he said. “That cost the county [part] of an $8,000 USDA grant. This relates to the building permits, because we need up to date information, it is imperative.”

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Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at mmarberry@farmingtonpressonline.com.

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