On The Other Side of Building Inspections in Grand Traverse County
Sept. 4, 2014
Everyone seems to dread dealing with the building inspector – usually the last obstacle in the way of occupying a building. Yet local inspectors face their own headaches, including confusion over zoning law, screaming building owners and conflicting code enforcement across municipal boundaries.
The Ticker sat down with Grand Traverse County Administrator Dave Benda and County Building Official Bruce Remai to get the story behind the inspections.
Ticker: Grand Traverse County handles building inspections differently than many other counties in the state. How does your model vary?
Benda: Everything is handled locally by in-house staff. We employ our inspectors, and we do the plan reviews in-house. In Benzie and Leelanau, for example, they contract out for inspections...it's not in-house staff. The other alternative is to turn everything over to the state and let them do it, but the state's not staffed to do that properly.
Remai: We have nine employees in the (Grand Traverse County) office, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing inspectors, as well as two on-call inspectors.
Ticker: One complaint we hear from developers and builders is that building inspectors seemingly look for or invent problems in order to keep coming back and charging fees for additional inspections.
Benda: Our inspectors get paid a salary, so there's zero incentive for them to do that. Our fees are set, and they generate enough revenue to keep everything going and support the department. We're pretty close to the bone on our profit margin.
Remai: I honestly don't think (our inspectors) think about that. There's no reason for them to. With contract inspectors, that might be different...there's some financial incentive with an outside firm that gets paid per visit. But we're not set up that way.
Ticker: What's usually happening then when a new business is close to opening and keeps pushing back the opening date due to inspection issues?
Remai: The biggest problem we run into is project management, or lack thereof. (Owners) expect us to produce punch lists and show them everything they need to do. But our job is to inspect, not engineer or project manage. Often they won't have engineering drawings, or they'll have them but not follow them. My advice is to always have an on-site project supervisor who knows how to read a blueprint.
Ticker: Different inspectors can interpret or enforce the code differently, which can give the impression someone is being unfairly singled out, or an inspector is on a “power trip.” How do you regulate that?
Remai: In our department, we all try to enforce the code exactly the same way. If one inspector misses something and another catches it, and that happens too many times, you have to look into that. I've fired inspectors for not doing their job. But all of us came from the field...the idea an inspector would retaliate against a developer because they didn't like them is ridiculous.
Benda: Every complaint I've investigated, there was a second side of the story...a commissioner or developer who said they were being mistreated, but turns out didn't do what they were supposed to do. We'll also get (flack) because other counties don't enforce the same things we do. But we're following the state code. It's not just a Grand Traverse County code.
Ticker: You're in a line of work where people aren't always happy to see you...
Benda: We're in a regulatory function, trying to provide the best customer service we can. We have to enforce the code...but we want to help people. We want them to succeed.
Remai: I have been on inspections where contractors have gone ballistic. I've had people screaming in my office. We get challenged every single day...it's a bit like a policeman in that way. You can't make everyone happy, and that can be stressful. But you try to handle it in the most professional way possible.
By the Numbers
Nine county inspectors are now working on a caseload of 2,000 projects, according to Remai. Here's a look at last year's GT County numbers:
Building permits = 908, number of inspections = 4,421
Electrical permits = 1,503, number of inspections = 2,693
Mechanical permits = 1,746, number of inspections = 2,670
Plumbing permits = 913, number of inspections = 1,974
Total permits issued = 5,097, total number of inspections = 11,758