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Jeff Johnson is Hartselle's do-it-all public servant

By Staff
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Department head…project manager…zoning official…nuisance abatement officer …maintenance technician …building inspector. These are some of the hats Jeff Johnson wears for the city of Hartselle.
The work-a-day world was much simpler for the department of development director when he joined the city's workforce as building and license inspector in June 1993.
"Back then, we issued 12 to 24 permits a year for new houses, and revenue totaled about $18,000 a year for all permits," Johnson recalled. He noted that a dramatic change began to take place the following year with the onset of a major building boom in both residential and commercial construction.
"Suddenly, new subdivisions were springing up all over town and we were issuing an average of 100 permits a year for new houses," he stated. "That trend continued and now we have a full-time certified field inspector. On the commercial side, the Highway 31 corridor experienced rapid growth with the addition of several new freestanding businesses. They included Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Burger King and the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Building permit fees jumped to $70,000 and then to $100,000 in 1998-99."
"In my first year, business privilege license fees totaled $325,000. By enhancing our ability to identify unlicensed businesses through computer upgrades, revenues increased substantially. When the building and license department was reorganized in 2001, revenue from licenses exceeded $700,000."
Johnson said the change from the building and license department to the department of development was a step that has benefited the public. "With city planner Jeremy Griffith, administrative assistant Susan Seibert and field inspector Derrick Woodall, we have personnel who are trained and experienced in various specialties, which include building, planning, zoning, inspections, engineering, project management and nuisance abatement. The success of this department is attributed to the teamwork of these individuals.
"By utilizing communications technology and being networked with one another we are able to provide accurate information to those who request it faster than ever before. This also permits the right hand to always know what the left hand is doing. I feel that is very important and shows professionalism," he pointed out.
The path to Johnson's office is well marked because it is used so often by city officials and employees when they need to confirm data or get a copy of a record on file.
"Over the years I have learned not to throw away any document that might serve a useful purpose at a later date," Johnson stated. "We have a complete file on all subdivisions for 15 years, all new commercial buildings and renovations for 12 years and all capital improvement and roadway projects for nine years. To keep pace, we have added 16 filing cabinets within the past two years."
Johnson's department also receives and answers numerous phone calls directed through city hall. "We receive an average of 70 to 80 calls on any given workday," Johnson stated.
About one-half of them are from residents wanting information about building and zoning requirements or nuisance issues," Johnson stated. "And now we are able to respond to most of the calls immediately thanks to our ability to pull up information from computer memory."
He added, "Our policy is to respond quickly to any and all inquiries that come into the office. We do what it takes to get the job done even if it means staying over or coming in early."
Another demand that is put on Johnson's time is the emergency calls he receives when something breaks or malfunctions in any one of several city-owned buildings. As maintenance supervisor, he has the responsibility to make sure everything is up and running. It's probable that he'll also be the one to fix it or see that it gets done.
Of all the hats he wears, the one he likes the most is project management. "It comes naturally with me since I worked for a company that specialized in commercial and industrial construction before I came here," Johnson said. "Putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together in a construction project is something I enjoy doing."
Current capital improvement projects Johnson is working on include the following: (1) front lobby security for city hall, (2) depot renovations grant, (3) downtown canopy repair grant, (4) city parking lot striping, (5) airport land purchase grant, (6) airport grant for new hangars, (7) airport layout plan. Airport hangar roof replacement, (8) landfill volumetric study, (9)interstate lighting repairs, (10) Highway 31 and Curry Street turn lane and (11) engineering coordination for the new Hammitt Street railroad bridge overpass.
"In government work, there are several levels of approval in the process of getting a project from start to finish. You have to be patient but persistent and be able to wiggle your way through in order to reach the objective," he stated. "In my prior work experience, I worked with both government and building officials. A large percentage of them had less than a desirable attitude toward contractors and inspection requests. Fairness and diplomacy are two of the traits we try to incorporate into our work here."
Johnson hesitated when he was asked to talk about how much money he has saved the city on capital improvement projects such as the new public works shop and office building and intersection improvements at Nanceford Road and Pattillo Street and East Main Street, Bethel Road and McClanahan Street. "Grandstanding is not in my nature," he stated. "I take satisfaction in seeing a project come together and knowing that I had a part in it."
As enforcement officer of the city's building code, Johnson finds himself face to face with an agitated builder or developer from time you time. How do you deal with that, he was asked?
"When I am confronted by someone who is agitated and angry about some action that was taken by my department, I don't take it personally," Johnson pointed out.
"I am careful to stick to the facts and explain in detail the reason why the action was taken. I have found it helps to treat everyone with the same understanding and fairness. If you do that, a satisfactory resolution can usually be reached.
"When I interviewed for this job, a city councilman asked me if I were hired was I in this for the long haul, or was I going to be a fly-by-night employee," Johnson recalled. "I promised I'd stay but no end date was set. I feel like I am giving back something to the community, and it's a pleasure to be able to work with other dedicated and capable city employees."
Johnson said he is able to work a difficult schedule that is subject to change at any given moment because of the patience and support of his wife, Melba. "She puts up with a lot and I'm thankful that she understands and is willing to accept what the job demands."
A native of Hartselle, Johnson is a 1977 graduate of the former Morgan County High School. He attended Auburn University for two years.
He is vice president of North Alabama Code Officials, chairman of the Decatur area MPO Technical Review Committee and a member of Hartselle Planning Commission and Hartselle Development Board. He also serves as an administrative advisor to the Board of Zoning Adjustments and the Business District Design Review Board.