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Cape cell phone debate gets heated

By Staff | Apr 16, 2011

Construction industry members expressed to city officials their frustration with Cape Coral’s new cell phone policy during a meeting Thursday night.
City Manager Gary King and Paul Dickson, director of the Department of Community Development, spoke at the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association’s monthly meeting and fielded questions from the audience.
Many CCCIA members argued, even shouted toward city officials at times, that the program is not working and the change is impacting business.
“You’re saving your money, but you’re costing us money,” one man said. “We’re not feeling the savings, you are.”
Cape Coral instituted its new cell phone stipend program in January, which brought an end to all city-funded cell phones. Under the program, employees can choose from three stipend tiers of $30 to $50 per month, with the goal being to provide cost savings to the city.
In the building department, inspectors are now using direct connect phones at a cost of $5 per month per phone to the city. They provide phone to phone communication that is similar to Nextel, but prevent those without the phone — construction industry members — from reaching the inspectors directly.
“We have provided them with other means for you to communicate with them and for them to get back to you,” Dickson told the audience Thursday.
Voice messages can be left for inspectors, who will then return the calls between 7 and 7:30 a.m. or at the end of the day. Unified messaging is also available. This allows for voice messages left for inspectors to be checked by inspectors throughout the day on their laptops as e-mail, he explained.
E-mail and text messaging are available, along with the eTRAKiT system.
“You can leave detailed messages and even put requests in,” Dickson said.
CCCIA members argued that their messages are not being promptly returned, or not being returned at all, leaving them hanging in the field.
“It’s not the inspector’s fault, things come up,” another man said, adding that “it’s not a two-way street here.”
Dickson directed industry members to contact him in these cases.
“Call me directly because I want to know when an inspector does not show up,” he said.
King acknowledged that the process is new and not “fined tuned” yet, and reiterated that the idea is to allocate the city’s resources more efficiency.
According to Dickson, the department currently has nine inspectors compared to the 64 that it had in prior years. He added that the city is trying to “squeeze out” 12 to 15 inspections per inspector each day.
“Some of the services and some of the interactions that we had is really not practical at this time,” Dickson said. “We’re trying to economize and make sure the inspectors are getting the most bang for their buck.”
King assured the group Thursday that he is listening and wants feedback from industry members in order to fix any problems with the new process.
“There’s a very broad mix of issues here in the room,” he said, adding that those brought forward were not all related to the elimination of cell phones.
During the discussion, one CCCIA member pointed out that the ability to directly contact inspectors was part of a deal once agreed upon by the city and CCCIA. In return, industry members had agreed to permit fee hikes.
“You basically took a service away,” the man said.
Annette Carrasquillo, a former CCCIA president, sat on the committee that worked with the city to come up with the deal. She said the CCCIA agreed to support increases to building permit fees, from 8 percent to 1,365 percent.
Permit fees for single-family homes rose approximately 200 percent.
Carrasquillo said the goal was to keep the department self-sustaining.
“Our fees paid for the operations of the (building) department,” she said.
In exchange for their support, the CCCIA got a certain level of service.
“One part of that was being able to contact the inspectors,” Carrasquillo said. “Now we don’t have that one-on-one communication.”
To reach the agreement, a committee made up of construction industry members analyzed a comprehensive study and worked with city officials. The city council later approved the hikes and the fees went into effect in 2009.
“Council approved the fees also understanding that we had come together and worked out this agreement,” Carrasquillo said.