A Tale of Harrowing Bureaucratic Hell

America has been considered the "land of the free" because of the liberties secured for us by our forefathers, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the World Wars of the 20th century.  But these freedoms have been undermined internally by the soft tyrants who populate our civil service workforce.

The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis observed:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

The terrible reality of how un-free our nation has become was painfully impressed upon me in dealing with the "omnipotent moral busybodies" of my city's public administration, whose charge it is to enforce the legal requirements for home remodeling projects.  Although I pay the mortgage, cover the cost of upkeep, buy homeowner's insurance, and send in my annual property taxes, the little Caesars in the Planning, Building, and Public Works divisions made quite sure that I knew who actually owns my home and gets to dictate what can be done with it.

In July 2017, my building planner submitted drawings of my proposed garage conversion project to the Planning Division in our city's beautiful, modern administrative office.  The clerk charged him a submission fee of $240, which he immediately paid.  He was told that the drawings would go to a planning review committee.  Six weeks passed with no response from the Planning Division, so in September 2017, I asked him to go to the beautiful, modern administrative office building to find out what our intrepid public servants were doing with the drawings.  On this second visit, a different clerk told him, "I'm sorry, the previous clerk charged you $240.  The actual fee for plan submissions is $249, so your account is $9 short.  That's why we didn't move forward with it."  The Planning Division personnel – who are paid by my tax dollars to know the fees associated with plan submissions – misstated the initial fee, yet their department collected and cashed the check with the incorrect amount anyway.  They did not call, text, email, fax, or send smoke signals to either my planner or me to inform us of the error; the submitted drawings would probably still be languishing in bureaucratic purgatory if my guy did not go back in person to ask what in the world was going on.  Dumbstruck, my planner could only shake his head and pay the $9 outstanding balance to move the planning process forward.

It took another six weeks before the Planning Division approved the drawings so we could move on for more bureaucratic oversight.  Just before Thanksgiving 2017, after multiple follow-up calls and emails, my planner learned that the Building Division would be reviewing the drawings forwarded to them by their colleagues in Planning.  As this was the holiday season, they could not provide a timeline for when their department would finalize its review.

So the 2017 holidays came and went, and 2018 became the calendar year, but no feedback from the Building Division was forthcoming.  With some telephonic sleuthing, I managed to get a Building Division supervisor on the phone in late January 2018.  From his perch in the beautiful, modern administrative office building, he told me that our plans had been sent to an outside contractor for review.  Apparently, the Building Division was short-staffed and did not have enough qualified safety inspectors in its beautiful, modern administrative office to handle the review internally.  In February 2018, the outside consultant told the Building Division that it was a groovy thing for me to want to convert my garage into a bedroom and that the plans were up to snuff; of course, my planner and I had to hound the staff in the beautiful, modern administrative office in order to secure this information.  Once we did, we learned that the plans had to be approved by the fire department, police department, and school district along with fees paid to each entity, because a garage conversion clearly presents a grave fire hazard, an increased risk of criminal activity, and an immediate need for more classrooms in our local elementary school.

It was in April 2018 that we were able to get through the remaining city departments to secure their "A-OK" on our plans.  With some additional running around to finalize some missing paperwork from the school district that the Building Division had failed to inform us in February to complete, I was finally approved in May 2018 to pull the actual building permit for the garage conversion.  Over the course of ten months of processing, the total permit fees that I paid to the city (to cover the cost of their beautiful, modern administrative office) exceeded $4,500.

By way of comparison, it took my contractor three months to complete the full demolition and conversion of the garage, carport construction, and new driveway.  All that work was done in less than half of the time of the permitting process, even with additional modifications to our plans that were mandated by the building inspectors who were sent out from the beautiful, modern administrative office to tell the contractor how to do his job after the construction project had begun.  These mandates increased the contracting costs above the initial price quote for construction by more than fifty percent.  For the portion of the project that required us to break concrete owned by the city for a new driveway apron, the Public Works Division charged me $240 for a permit to move the driveway five feet east of its original location, as mandated by their brethren in the Planning and Building Divisions.  In the process of demolishing the old driveway and pouring the new one, over the course of three days, five roaming inspectors stopped at my home to threaten our masons with arrest if they did not stop their work.  This was done, of course, in the name of public safety.  When shown a copy of the Public Works permit, each of these inspectors apologized for the inconvenience, all mentioning that nobody in the beautiful, modern administrative office had alerted them that I had paid for the permission to spend my money to reconfigure the driveway as had been mandated by other public officials (in that very same beautiful, modern administrative office) whose salaries are being paid by my taxes and fees.

The tyrants whom we have been taught to fear are those who use their power to crush, imprison, and kill their opposition through force.  C.S. Lewis accurately discerned that the civil servants who enforce rules, regulations, and codes and collect fees at every possible opportunity are no less tyrannical than a tsar, caudillo, or duce.  They merely impose tyranny slowly, bloodlessly, almost imperceptibly.  What need is there for a strongman to oppress his subjects with messy, brute force when oppression can be implemented cleanly by unassuming clerks in beautiful, modern administrative office buildings?   

John Steinreich has an M.A. in church history from Colorado Theological Seminary.  He has authored two Christian-themed books available on Kindle: The Words of God? and A Great Cloud of Witnesses.  His works are also on Lulu Press.  He is currently developing a stage production on the life of Frederick Douglass.

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