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ASHLAND - The City of Ashland is moving forward in its plans to enforce and administer commercial building codes in-house rather than through the Richland County Building Department.

All enforcement and administration of the commercial building code for projects in the city of Ashland is currently done in Richland County, Mayor Matt Miller explained to the city council and attendees of Tuesday's council meeting.

"Our contractors, developers and property owners would go over to Richland County and would interact with their staff and their inspectors as they were competing projects within city limits," Miller said. 

Ashland County also contracts with Richland County for commercial building codes enforcement. 

Miller said 20 years ago, city and county officials discussed a desire to bring those services to the city of Ashland to make them more efficient for local developers. 

"At that time however, we did not have the staff with the right certifications to make it happen. Neither did the county," Miller said. 

So over the past year and a half, city leaders have been working to assemble a team that can do the work in-house.  

City engineer Shane Kremser has obtained certifications to be a building official and a plans examiner. The city has also redefined positions in the engineering department to make sure new staff coming in have the background and certification to do building inspections. Among the city's newest staff members are an electrical safety inspector and a plumbing inspector. 

"We feel we have a good team in place that will be able to create a good culture for the development projects that take place here in the community... I think the team is very excited. They understand the challenges our folks that have been trying to do business have experienced over the last several years, and they want to correct those," Miller said. 

City leaders are planning spend about $75,000 to get the building codes office up and running. That money will be advanced out of the general fund to the building and zoning fund and will be reimbursed to the general fund when the office begins collecting fees. 

City council members voted Tuesday to approve $48,698 for the purchase of two trucks for the department's inspectors. While that will be the largest equipment expense for the new office and may be the only one that requires approval from council, the city plans to make other purchases including software and iPads for department. 

The city has also done some remodeling in the municipal building, taking out walls in the engineer's office area on third floor to accommodate the new department. 

Miller said he fully expects the office to pay for itself in fee collection. The city intends to charge the same rates Richland County has been charging, Miller said. 

"Truly the only change someone used to working through this process would see is now it will be right here in our own backyard," Miller said. "It will be our own staff that will be carrying out the inspections, and hopefully they will be easier to reach.

"We will be covering one city and one county if the county decides to go with us, whereas Richland County currently covers multiple counties."

Miller told council members he met with Ashland County commissioners earlier Tuesday to discuss whether the county would want to contract with the city for commercial building code enforcement. 

"The commissioners are deliberating right now about whether or not to end their agreement with Richland County so they can join our effort," Miller said. 

Miller said he hopes to have the office up and running by the end of August. That would require Richland County to allow Ashland to sever its contract without the full 60-day formal notice required in the contract, but Miller said Richland County officials have been aware of Ashland's planned departure for several months. 

The mayor said the city regularly gets calls from developers who say they are postponing their building projects until the service is available in Ashland because they expect the process to be easier after the change. 

"I do think this will be an important part of future economic development," Miller said. 

Council member Dennis Miller praised the upcoming change and said it cannot come soon enough.

"This is huge," he said. "I get a lot of feedback on the current process, and it's very frustrating I think because Richland County is such a big territory, so this is a huge step forward."

Council member Steve Workman said it "makes perfect sense" to bring the service in-house, and council member Dan Lawson agreed the change is "a wise move."