Howard Burrell said that when he was campaigning for Vernon Township mayor, he’d heard the most complaints about the building department.
After what Burrell called an “extensive search,” Bob Westenberger, the former director of buildings and grounds at St. Clare’s in Denville, was named as head of the department, starting July 1. Westenberger had the unenviable task of turning around a department that was plagued by delays and poor customer service.
When he was mayor, the township council president, Harry Shortway, was a frequent target of complaints. At a special workshop meeting last Thursday, Shortway said there was clearly a lack of supervision in the department. He also noted that construction fees have decreased in the last few years, except for 2017.
Westenberger told the council last Thursday that the department was barely limping along when he arrived on July 1. While his predecessor was a “great inspector,” he said, he would do some office work and then be gone all day doing inspections.
In Vernon Township, a construction official needs to be in the office for at least 75 percent of the day, said Westenberger. “People need to talk to a construction official at the counter,” he said. “They need to talk to one at the phone. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
He said lots of paperwork and many permits from the last several years were left finished, causing a backlog. “I have had to at least focus all my efforts on not only the present day’s situation, but what’s been going on in the last year,” Westenberger said. “There’s tons of permits that have never been closed. Some are closed and have never been closed out and filed.”
Some buildings lack complete certificates of occupancy, and others have been on temporary certificates of occupancy for more than 10 years. Westenberger said he can’t even begin to count how many buildings on temporary certificates of occupancy are out in Vernon Township right now, although he has closed some of them out and brought them up to date with permanent certificates.
Getting the department to pay for itself
According to township code, the building department must be financially self-sufficient, and money has been owed the township for years. However, in the past five months the department has been busy with home rehabilitations and repairs underway.
The department brought in $201,000 from July through November, and in the first few days of December brought in about $5,200. “If I go that rate, I’m going to bring in $50,000 this month,” Westenberger said. “That’s very good for Vernon.”
In past years, the building department has had problems with long lines and no one picking up the phone. Under the previous administration, Councilwoman Jean Murphy would tell then-Mayor Shortway that no one was answering the phone. She said Shortway would tell her there was a long line at the window.
“You’re here to serve the town,” Murphy said, “and anything we can do to make that easier would be a benefit.”
Westenberger said he has a good working relationship with Alyson LaRocca at the zoning office and other township officials, and that he plans to be a presence at the counter.
“I think the office has been suffering because a construction official was not seen or available to the public,” Westenberger said. “I think that’s wrong. I think people have to put a name to the face. If a contractor has a complaint, he has to come in and talk to that person.”
“I have had to at least focus all my efforts on not only the present day’s situation, but what’s been going on in the last year. There’s tons of permits that have never been closed. Some are closed and have never been closed out and filed.” Bob Westenberger