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Building inspections lacking, audit finds

Pinellas fails to inspect nearly one-quarter of the permits issued, but most are for minor projects.

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2003

CLEARWATER -- Thousands of building projects are going uninspected each year in Pinellas County, according to a Building Department audit released this week.

Auditors found that the Building Department failed to conduct inspections on 22 percent of the permits issued during the 2001 fiscal year. That comes to 4,182 permits for everything from reroofing jobs to replacement of air conditioning systems.

The failures generally have occurred because Building Department officials rely on contractors to let them know when the job is complete and ready for an inspection, as required by law.

"If the contractor doesn't call in, the Building Department should be following up to make sure these inspections are performed," said Robert Melton, director of internal audits for the clerk of the circuit court. "This situation concerns me because building codes are there to help the public. When an inspection doesn't get performed, that assurance is not being provided."

Other major findings and conclusions in the audit report included:

Commercial properties are not adequately monitored to ensure safety. Just one staffer is assigned to oversee inspections of 7,332 commercial properties in the unincorporated parts of the county.

Building code violations are not resolved in a timely manner. A review of a sampling of code violations issued by the department revealed that nearly one in three was not followed up with a citation, even a year after they were issued.

Nearly 1,000 of the 3,846 residential roofing permits issued, or 26 percent, were not inspected. For five roofing contractors, between 70 percent and 95 percent of their jobs were not inspected.

The permit fees do not cover the cost of running the department. Taxpayers have subsidized the inspection process to the tune of $1.5-million over the past six years, Melton said.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said the problems identified by the auditors were overblown.

"I'm not sure they rise to serious public safety issues," Spratt said. "I'm reasonably comfortable the Building Department is doing what it's supposed to be doing."

The Pinellas County Building Department serves the unincorporated parts of the county. It also contracts with a number of smaller cities for some or all of their inspections. Larger cities, like St. Petersburg, have their own inspection departments

Spratt said the 22 percent figure cited in the audit report is misleading. In Miami-Dade County, where Spratt worked last, he said there were tens of thousands of open permits. Some are contractors who obtained permits but never ended up taking on the job. Or they take longer than expected to get started.

It would be foolhardy for the department to go out and inspect before a job is complete, Spratt said.

Nonetheless, Spratt said the county is fast-tracking a new computer system that will allow the Building Department to identify and follow up on old jobs that have not been inspected.

"There should be a system of flagging these things or purging them," Spratt said.

Building inspector Robert Nagin noted that contractors violate state law if they complete a building project and do not call for an inspection. The new computer system will allow the department to make periodic sweeps of old permits. If they discover that a contractor has finished a job but did not call for an inspection, they will report that contractor to the state licensing board for investigation.

Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, said the issue has been raised, often by auditors, in a number of communities around the state.

Uninspected projects mean a building department cannot "assure the consumer the job was done consistent with the code," he said, but in most cases they involve minor permits. "The danger to the public is very small," Narkiewicz said.

The issue of noninspections does not apply to new construction because a final inspection report is required to obtain a certificate of occupancy. Electricity cannot be turned on without it.

Rather, the issue arises in various construction projects -- for things like electrical, gas, roof and plumbing work -- in existing homes. A certificate of occupancy is not needed for these kinds of projects.

Not having a system in place to follow up on old permits invites problems, Melton said.

"It's especially frightening when you consider that the contractor determines whether an inspection occurs," Melton said. "A contractor who knows the system, and may not be doing things up to code, they are not going to call the Building Department to schedule an inspection."

The audit report also says commercial properties are not adequately monitored to ensure their safety. Just one staff member is assigned to commercial property inspection. It is projected that he performs 1,380 inspections per year, including repeat inspections. There are 7,332 hotels, factories, retail stores and other commercial properties in unincorporated Pinellas.

"There is no way one person can keep up with this many commercial properties," Melton said.

Spratt said the county does not have the resources to inspect every commercial property every year. They inspect only in response to complaints.

"Do we have enough cops on the street to catch every speeder?" Spratt asked.

The audit report also states that the fees charged by the county are low compared to other area communities and do not generate enough income to make the department a break-even operation, as it seeks to do. Auditors said costs of running the department exceeded revenues by $630,000 in 2001. Over a six year period from 1997 through 2002, the department came up $1.5-million short, Melton said.

"That is a cost being subsidized by the citizens and taxpayers of Pinellas County," Melton said.

Spratt said that issue is nothing new to him. Fees were raised by 10 percent this year.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's old news and the subject of our annual budget process," Spratt said.

The report comes amid intense scrutiny of the Building Department over its inspections at the Nature's Watch townhouse community in East Lake. Several building officials and residents claim county inspectors missed hundreds of code violations, some of which they say contributed to water damage that has cost the residents there millions of dollars.

Spratt maintains the Building Department did all that was required of it. But to allay community concerns, Spratt has decided to hire three building officials from other counties and one general contractor to perform a peer review of the Building Department's operations. The four men will evaluate the inspections performed at Nature's Watch, some more than 10 years ago, as well as the current operations of the department.

"We think we're doing a good job," Spratt said, but the peer review will provide "objective, impartial scrutiny."

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