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My Secret Spy Mission To Development Services

By Greg L | 22 February 2013 | Prince William County | 12 Comments

With all the capital improvement projects being bandied about in this year’s budget discussions I thought it might be useful to take a look at what government is already doing with our taxpayer dollars on capital improvement projects, so I took a little field trip to the Development Services Building today.  Every new public building these days seems to be awfully expensive, with all sorts of features I wouldn’t expect to see if anyone was trying to control costs, and to me it seemed like a logical place to start in understanding why this is is to get copies of some building plans.  The design of these buildings might help explain why they’re costing taxpayers so darned much, and even if you’re not an architect if you spend a bit of time with a set of plans you can get a good idea of how complex a project is, why it might be expensive, and how it could have been designed in a more cost-effective manner.

When you go into the Development Services Building the first thing you do is talk to the guy at the help desk, and this guy is the very epitome of what a public servant should be.  The guy was genuinely friendly and helpful, and figured it might save me time if he looked up the building permit number for the project I was interested in, which he did.  If half the people in county government were as good as this guy, especially in executive leadership, we’d hardly have any problems at all in local government.  So with this, I was off to a great start.

Once my number was called I went over to one of the windows and chatted with a nice lady and explained what I was looking for.  The project that attracted my interest is in the last phases of construction, so the plans would certainly be readily available and not shuttled off to some archive.  She checked on some papers and informed me that copies of building plans are $125 and each sheet copied would cost me $15.  Really?  I know she had no discretion in this matter, but what in the heck is going on here?  These are the building plans for a public building, I’m the one paying for the building and the architectural plans, and it’s going to cost me $125 right off the bat to see the products of my own tax dollars that show how my tax dollars are being used?

No wonder there are ever so few questions about why public buildings cost taxpayers so much.

I also walked over to the mapping department to pick up an updated map of the precincts and magisterial districts in the county.  Nice people there, also.  Very nice.  They apologized profusely about how their network had gone down once again and left me waiting about twenty minutes before they could see me, even though we’re paying $3.5 million a year for local network and server management, excluding equipment costs.   They charge $7.50 per sheet to print a map out on their large format printer, which is the same printer that would be used to print a sheet from a building plan that I’d get charged $15 for and the map is slightly larger than a plan sheet.  Go figure.

Anyways, I did manage to find out that you can inspect building plans without having to pay the $125, but you can’t take them over to mapping to have them make copies for you.  You have to stand there in a little plan review room with your iPhone trying to snap pictures of portions of these large sheets of paper like you’re some kind of secret agent on a spy mission.  How ridiculous.  We can let you see what you paid for, but if you want a copy of one sheet of this plan you need to fork over $140.00.

It does after all is said and done, seem strangely fitting to feel like you’re on some sort of spy mission.  Government is spending your money and doing whatever it can to make it difficult for you to understand exactly what it is doing with that money.  If citizens weren’t charged exorbitant fees to get copies of the plans that they already paid for they might start actually looking at those plans and questioning why local government decided to create such extraordinary monuments.

They might also start asking questions about why government doesn’t seem to be restrained by the same requirements that are imposed on private landowners in the county, but that’s a story that I’ll save for a later post.

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  1. Former Officer said on 23 Feb 2013 at 5:23 am:
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    Judging by the lack of responses anymore on here I believe people are tired of your rants. I tired a long time ago but still stop by once in awhile for a dose of humor.

  2. Anon said on 23 Feb 2013 at 7:25 am:
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    Sorry FO, I read everyday, many like myself have begun to take action on these things rather then just rant on the blog. Thanks for the info Greg.

  3. TRD said on 23 Feb 2013 at 9:23 am:
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    You reap what you sow, Greg. Why should I subsidize the reproduction costs for non-standard sized architectural plans so you can pretend to be a building inspector? You want ‘em, pay for ‘em.

    I AM amused you think you can read a set of building plans in the first place.

  4. Greg L said on 23 Feb 2013 at 10:52 am:
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    Love the hostility directed towards someone who makes an effort to promote transparency and effective government. You’re quite a piece of work there.

    More substantively, I’m not demanding that the county provide plan copies for free - reasonable reproduction costs should be charged - but a $125 service charge is quite unreasonable, especially when the plans are for a public building. No one was able to explain the purpose for this other than it was a “line item” charge and they had no choice in the matter.

    The rules that apply in this department probably need a thorough review. Previously I had discovered that a property owner could not obtain a building permit for his own property unless he was a licensed contractor. I can understand the requirement for a licensed contractor to perform the work, and even to call for inspections and such, but there’s no rational reason (other than to make billable work for contractors) to require that filling out some paperwork and paying a fee is such a specialized skill that you have to posses a license in order to do it.

  5. charles said on 23 Feb 2013 at 2:50 pm:
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    The plans are likely online in a CAD program; those programs can create PDF outputs. So there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to make them available in that format when you go in, and you should be able to make copies of the electronic files.

  6. Greg L said on 23 Feb 2013 at 5:05 pm:
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    Charles, they don’t digitize building plans or request digital files. Since most of the notations about inspection results are noted on the plans with pen until there’s electronic records management it hardly makes sense to even bother.

    Doing so would save a huge amount of costly space in Dev Services, as these plans take up a huge amount of space. Takes a lot of time to locate and pull plans, takes a lot of space to store them, and doing anything with them certainly takes a lot of time just finding and managing paper. Moving these to electronic storage would make a huge amount of sense, but there would be hurdles about digital formats and standards to overcome that wouldn’t be insubstantial.

  7. BSinVA said on 24 Feb 2013 at 9:35 am:
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    Greg: Why don’t you call around to local architectural and engineering offices or even local office supply stores and print shops and find out what they charge to copy and distribute plans? If the County’s charges are not in scale with the private sector’s than you may have an argument. Conversely, if they are close to others, it isn’t an issue in my book.

    Essentially, your article is that everyone in Development Services was friendly and helpful, you got access to what you asked for, you personally couldn’t afford the costs of duplicating plans. I got it!

  8. Kim Simons said on 24 Feb 2013 at 10:18 am:
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    One issue that’s probably worth investigating is why the cost of all of these buildings have gone up so much n the pat few years, despite the recession. Fredom high school cost 40 million to build in 2002 to 2004, and 4 million of that was for site work since Freedom was built on a wetland. That was at the peak of the construction boom. Patriot high school, which was built from 2009 - 2011 in the peak of the collapse, was 70 million. Why did costs double from 2002 to 2009? Was it the design of the building or something else? PWCS is building LEED certified buildings, but recent news reports suggest you can get buildings that are just as energy efficient and use as many recycle products as possible at a significant savings if you don’t pursue LEED certification. With the school division projecting over 500 million in new school construction over the next 5 years, understanding why these costs have gone up is probably a good idea.

  9. Unbiased said on 25 Feb 2013 at 11:31 am:
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    The nice thing about not being partisan is not seeing the world through a particular set of glasses. While I appreciate your efforts to root out waste in tax payer money, it seems you might be on a bit of a tea party inspired jihad. I work for a firm that designs just that sort of plans that you describe. Our cost for paper, ink and the printer comes to almost $2 per 24×36 sheet not including labor. So yes, the cost could come down a bit. Try seeing it through the county department perspective though. They have a myriad of rules because one employee tried this and a tax payer tried that. Eventually their ability to function becomes an obstacle course. Combine that with the fact that their departments are squeezed and they are looking for ways to alleviate the squeeze. I’m not making excuses, just trying to show the true reality of it all. So I’m curious, how many of those folks in your “Worst Candidate Ever” poll are either democrats or republicans that aren’t far right enough for your taste?

  10. Maureen said on 26 Feb 2013 at 5:28 am:
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    Our company has bid on many PWC schools and all their plans are in digital format. If the county building went out to bid they will also be in digital form. Don’t let pull that crap on you.

  11. Greg L said on 26 Feb 2013 at 11:57 am:
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    I’ve no doubt they use and maintain the plans in digital format, but that’s not what gets submitted to the county for approval. The county still requires paper, and their workflow of noting plan modifications, completed partial inspections, completed full inspections and other permitting activities are hand written on the approved plan copies in the field. All final approvals are noted with stamps and signatures on the plan copies kept by the county.

    If this were all to be digitized this whole workflow would have to be digitized as well, and that’s not a trivial task. Even if you managed to solve the file format standardization issue, you still have to deal with the fact that a building site may not have access to the internet.

    The county is spending something close to $10 million this year to upgrade *just* their accounting software. One computer program. $10 million bucks. All it does is manage financial transactions. I can only imagine how much these folks would spend to buy a system for something as complex and data intensive as permitting and inspections.

    Still, having a digital copy of the plans as submitted to the county would make a ton of sense to me.

  12. ToBeRIGHT said on 26 Feb 2013 at 12:30 pm:
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    That there are people who think this is fine and dandy is the reason our country is doomed.

    I especially like the guy who says “nobody comes here so it shows you’re meaningless” while in the process of being here and commenting. I’m sure there is irony there somewhere.

    The last national election showed clearly…. 51% of the country are freakin morons, as exemplified by a few commenters above.

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