IF YOU ENJOY watching paint dry, you have a future in local politics! The battle of our local York, Pa.city-licensed plumbing contractors vs. oppressive and unwarranted fees raged on for weeks ( April, pg. 34 or see http://www.contractormag.com/articles/ column.cfm?columnid=295). We met with York's City Council to argue against the newly passed ordinances that had been snuck through without public scrutiny.
The process is extremely frustrating but it was something we were determined to see through to a conclusion. The system seems to be designed to be so excruciatingly difficult that anyone attempting to work through it will become-frustrated, and simply give up and go home.
The City Council, however, was dealing with people who regularly meet challenges that would make most people run in the opposite direction. Who among them has ever cleaned a longneglected grease trap or faced a basement "swimming pool" of raw sewage?
We weren't about to give up or back down.
Part of this political process gave us an opportunity to question code officials. When we asked the fire chief why only licensed plumbing contractors had been singled out for the $100 annual "torch fee," he freely admitted it was because we are the only licensed trades people and, therefore, we were the only group for which they had addresses!
We pointed out that the addresses of others who use torches in the course of their work for soldering, cutting, brazing or demolition could be found in the business sections of the phone book, or in a Chamber of Commerce or city directory. Had any of them been notified? No.
I asked for any record of a licensed plumbing contractor who had started a fire that required the fire department's response or resulted in a loss of property. He admitted there was no record implicating any licensed plumbers.
A number of citizens arose to express their outrage at these new fees.
Was he aware that painters burning off old paint had started three fires requiring his department's response the previous year? Yes, he was! Did he know that burning off lead-based paint violated federal regulations? Yes. Why, then, were we being singled out? No answer.
Turning next to the code enforcement officer, we asked about the $ 50 fee to witness our testing of backflow preventers. Was he aware that we are licensed by both the New England Water Works Association and The York Water Co., and that any of us who are licensed to test backflow preventers had taken a three-day course and had been tested to verify our competence? No.
Was he aware that The York Water Co. was not going to comply with his demand that it turn over its records of who has testable backflow prevention devices within city limits and that it already oversees enforcement and testing? No. Did he have anyone on staff trained to oversee the administration of a backflow prevention program or licensed to perform this work? No.
Next up were the new plumbing license, permit and inspection fees. We pointed out that a standard three-fixture bathroom installation or remodel would see an increase from $42 to a minimum of $120 (three fixtures at $20 each plus two inspection visits at $30 minimum each) and that this fee was now open-ended, creating a situation rife with potential abuse as had been seen in Philadelphia.
A number of citizens arose to express their outrage at these new fees, indicating they'd be more inclined to hire unlicensed handymen who were willing to do the work — without permits or inspections — in spite of their knowing the work would be less professional. A landlord was present who owns a number of properties and he, too, stated he would no longer use licensed plumbing professionals in order to avoid such fees.
We then pointed out that more than a few unlicensed persons had been caught working without either a Master Plumber's license or a plumbing permit, yet not a single one had been fined or prosecuted! (July 2002, pg. 16 or see http://www.contractormag.com/ articles/column.cfm?columnid=124). None — not a single one — not this year or any other year, either. Why not?
We pointed out that although we were upset about having to pay these increased fees for permits and inspections, we were really ticked off that there was no enforcement against those who blatantly work outside the rules while our license fees were being doubled.
As with anything political, we didn't get everything we asked for. The City Council recognized the fact that we plumbing contractors are the only licensed trade within city limits and, as such, added this language to the $100 torch fee: * Exception: Any construction tradesman holding a valid license issued by the City of York shall be exempt from these permit fees. The $50 grease trap inspection fee was dropped as was the $50 oversight fee for backflow preventer tests. Our doubled license, permit and inspection fees remained intact.
We worked within the political process, obtained some measure of success and presented ourselves as the business professionals we are.
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].
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