The feds and the small business owners

Today's guest column comes from a D.C.-area builder and small business owner experienced in dealing with all levels of government officials.

When people complain about “the government” they are often talking about their state, county or municipal governments, not feds here in the Washington, D.C. swamp. But sometimes it’s that too.

Today’s guest column is from a Washington-area builder, Mark Scott of Mark IV Builders Inc. He’s been dealing, and sometimes tangling with officials at the state, county and federal level for decades. Here’s what he has to say:

“I am a typical small business owner in the D.C. area. I try hard to do what my customers ask of me, to get my workers to accomplish those requests with a minimum of hassle and still make a profit. Largely, we look at the feds and most government workers as a group dedicated to getting in our way.

“I’ve worked in residential construction in this area for almost 40 years — commercial construction for seven prior to that. In construction, we see lots of government workers (inspectors). You get to know them, learn their idiosyncrasies and do what makes them happy. By the way, I’ve never been asked for a bribe in my career. The inspections are a hassle and an annoyance, but they are part of doing business.

“Over my career, I’ve varied from working very well with my government counterparts to being very cynical. I personally started applying for building permits in 1981. Over the years in Montgomery County, the folks I dealt with on the lower levels of the building departments moved up in their organizations as did I. We have a long history with each other. I gained a reputation of doing good work and respecting my counterparts and vice versa.

“Largely, we’ve worked together toward a common goal of getting things done. Sometimes, government gets in the way by insisting the very narrow paths be followed in getting approvals with unbending specifics. In the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs world, this is the norm. I’ve had many building permit officers show me little tweaks to my application that will make things flow more smoothly.

“There are many assumptions about both the builders and the government overseers that are sometimes correct and sometimes not: Builders are cowboys that are always trying to slide something wrong past the government, ‘developer’ is a bad word and all developers are dishonest and are out to screw the govt and their customers. Government workers are in place to save the public from these dishonest developers.  Government is more concerned with checking boxes than getting things done.’ And there’s my personal favorite, ‘There is no incentive for a government employee to say yes; if they say yes, they could be making a mistake and will be punished. If they say no, there is never any negative consequence. So the safe route is always to say no.’

“While there is some truth to each of these statements above, most of these axioms have been foisted upon us by elected officials that have little knowledge and are mostly looking to gain votes.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, I found the building departments to be populated with folks that worked in the field as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. They then moved to the building departments for various reasons. These people understood their trades and were likely to discuss with the builders the various options employed to get the job done correctly and within the codes.

“I find a new breed of government worker moving into the building departments. This worker is unlikely to have spent any time in the construction trades. They are career bureaucrats. All they know are the ‘rules’ and these new bureaucrats exist to ensure that those rules are enforced, regardless of common sense.

“I find these folks very rigid in their actions and very hard to get things done. The unfortunate result of this is to modify applications with documentation that will never be followed and their only function is to obtain a building permit.

“As I move into the waning years of my career, I know that what we build will always be done using good building practices but in some cases, the projects won’t conform to the standards set by the bureaucratic rigidity.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

In 1961 a Downey, California, elementary school banned the “Tarzan” book series, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because some parents complained that Tarzan and Jane weren’t married before living together in the jungle.

Source: Star News, Google News archive

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