Glendale’s Hidden Building Tax

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By PETER ROSENTHAL, President
V.I.P. Trust Deed Company

If you are planning to remodel your house or commercial property or build a new house in Glendale, or if you have done so in the last 15 years, I want to warn you about the “hidden” building tax. When you go to the city and pay for plan check, permit fees and school taxes, you come away in disbelief. Not only did you empty your wallet by paying all those fees, but you experienced the Glendale “so you want to build a house?” routine. Do you remember the old “Indian gauntlet?” When the Indians captured a prisoner they used to form a two sided line and make the prisoner run down the line. The Indians on each side would beat the prisoner with a club as he progressed down the line. In this way, everybody hit the prisoner and inflicted punishment.

Well, guess what? Over the years the Glendale Building Department has picked up on this old Indian trick. When you try to get a building permit today, you or your contractor will be faced with a series of obstacles set up by generally inexperienced employees who are as hard to get along with as an Indian captor. If you have ever gone through this process, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

Let me digress for a moment. I bet you think that I have personally been frustrated by the Glendale Building Department and this is my opportunity to “get even.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I am smart enough not to ever attempt the Herculean task of building, remodeling or virtually “doing anything” in Glendale that would require a permit. Over the years, I have seen too many people beat their heads against a wall with plan checkers, inspectors, design review boards, fire department requirements, etc. I have seen one design review board reject the approved (expired) plans of Glendale’s other design review board. The only difference was the house was 50% complete and the design review board wanted the new owner to tear off the existing roof and totally change the look of the house. I have seen another design review board spend a lengthy period of time debating whether earthquake reinforcement plates should be installed in a square as the plans called for, or turned 45 degrees so that the square would resemble a diamond. You guessed it, they couldn’t leave well enough alone and demanded that the plans be amended, resulting in more engineering costs, a further delay and another fee for the second trip to the design review board.

I know of a situation where a young, inexperienced plan checker got purposely “nit picky” on a structural engineer’s calculations, to the point where the engineer had to remind the inexperienced plan checker that the engineer was doing building calculations while the plan checker was in diapers. Does it stop here? Nope. I have seen Glendale contractors move out of state because they “just couldn’t take it any more.” Is this something new? Heck no. As this article indicates, this problem has existed in Glendale for at least 20 or more years. For years the burgeoning Armenian community was convinced that Glendale was prejudiced against Armenian builders or contractors. This actually wasn’t the case, as the city process was prejudiced against anybody wishing to avail themselves of these services.

Part of the problem, of course, is the bureaucratic mentality. Unfortunately, the building department doesn’t gave out awards or bonuses for the nicest or most helpful plan checker or inspector. There just is no “bureaucratic incentive” to be nice to the client. That’s right, I said client. Unfortunately the typical bureaucratic mentality doesn’t think the client is a client. Too often in the process and change or plan is rejected because of nit picking.

Some nit picking is necessary, where other nit picking is the result of “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” How would you like to be an owner/builder or contractor who waited in line for an hour or two, to be “delayed again” by nit picking. If the nit picking is really necessary, that same smug bureaucrat could just as easily say, “I am sorry we have to reject this because of ______. Let me give you a suggestion. If you submit it back with this and that simple change, there will be no problem.” Is this process designed to help you through it? Heck no.

Now comes the hidden tax. Not only have you and/or the architect or contractor faced delay after delay on this project, you are probably paying “the Glendale tax.” Here’s the way the tax works. Many good, reliable builders, engineers and architects just won’t design or build a house in the City of Glendale. Life is too short to put up with all of the crap. Other professionals merely “add in” an aggravation fee somewhere in the estimate for the nuisance of having to deal with the City of Glendale. That nuisance fee can EASILY be $1,000 or more. If the construction costs are $200-300,000, I assure you this nuisance fee is closer to $10,000. Unfortunately, this is a dirty little secret. I deal with so many of these professional people on a day to day basis that I have recommended that they “tell it like it is.” I have suggested that when giving a written quotation, they merely add 10, 15, 20% or whatever to their fee and identify it truthfully, i.e. Glendale surcharge. A few professionals I know swear to me that they are going to clearly spell that out in future. Others are afraid that they will get in trouble with the building department. Imagine a bunch of Glendale residents or future residents complaining to the city that their engineer, architect or contractor charged them an extra percentage just because they had to do business with the Glendale Building Department. The purpose of this article is to let you know that you are being charged extra anyway; it is just not spelled out for what it is.

Is there an easy solution to this problem? Unfortunately, no. City Councils come and go, mayors come and go, but unfortunately “staff” stay and cannot easily be replaced. The City Council and/or mayor can bemoan the fact that this really occurs. Unfortunately, the Council cannot really do anything about this problem unless and until it becomes a Glendale priority. This phenomenon has been with us for more than two decades; this is nothing new. Perhaps over the next year more professionals will have the courage to spell out the “Glendale tax” on their bills. Maybe then we can get some contests going, i.e. the most helpful plan checker, the friendliest building inspector, etc. Long term, experienced people in the Glendale bureaucracy are certainly aware of this problem. Frankly, they are just as fed up with it and waiting to retire.

Maybe this article is six months too late. As I write this, I am told that there actually is at present a push within the city to be more customer friendly. The city is actually trying to streamline this permit process. Though I am certain the intentions are honorable, in actuality the system still doesn’t work well. The customer still gets passed around, put off and faced with conflicting demands from different departments.

Peter Rosenthal
VIP Trust Deed Company