Inspection delays draw ire of contractors

City’s two electrical inspectors too overworked to keep on schedule, they say; city officials disagree

Steve Capell, third from left, owner of Summit Electric, spends each lunchtime on Friday with his crew picketing City Hall in an effort to get the city to hire another electrical-systems inspector. Capell said the city�s two inspectors are so overworked it now routinely takes a week or more for them to make it out to a job site; the city�s stated goal in this instance is to have the inspector on-site within 24 hours.

DaveGallagher
   With construction booming in Bellingham and the summer season being the most hectic time of the year, Steve Capell, owner of Summit Electric, is a busy man getting wiring in place for new businesses.
   Despite the busy schedule, Capell has chosen to bring his employees to City Hall every Friday during the lunch hour with picket signs to protest the frustrations they have had with the city’s building permit process.
   “It takes an hour out of our schedule, but if we’re able to convince the city to make some changes, we’ll be able to save our customers at least a week in delays,” Capell said. “It’s gotten that bad for companies waiting on electrical inspections.”
   With two electrical inspectors staffed by the city, the inspection process fell behind in August as the permit applications began piling up. The city’s goal is to have an electrical inspection done within 24 hours; however, electrical contractors are now waiting up to seven days for an inspection.
   Capell said the delays are having a cascading effect on construction projects throughout the city, because when the electrical inspection is delayed, it creates a bottleneck, holding up several other aspects of the project.
   “Insulation can’t be installed, walls can’t be closed and flooring can’t be completed,” Capell said. “Suddenly everyone is behind schedule, and a project like the Gateway building (on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, site of the former Bellingham Inn) could end up opening 30 days later than scheduled. That’s a month’s rent for all those tenant spaces.”
   Capell and his crew have been urging the city through their weekly protests to hire another inspector to help ease the workload.
   “The two inspectors they have do a great job. We definitely do not have a problem with the quality work they put in every day. They are just overwhelmed with all of the work they have on their plates,” Capell said.
   The crunch time seems particularly acute now, as construction companies that started projects in the spring are at the point where electrical wiring is being installed. Chris Spens, a planner for the city, noticed one day recently that the city’s two electrical inspectors had 68 inspections on their list.
   “When the list is that long, it can be highly disruptive for contractors who are trying to finish up so businesses can open on time,” Spens said.

The in-between stage
   However, the manager of the city’s permit center is reluctant to hire another electrical inspector. John Asmundson, the city’s permit center manager, said the current workload level is enough to make it busy for two inspectors, but not enough to justify hiring a third inspector. He estimates the two inspectors’ work schedules are at about 90 percent, which means there is very little wiggle room when an inspector goes on vacation, or there is an unusually high volume of inspections.
   “We’re at that in-between size. If we had 10 percent less work, we’d be in good shape with two inspectors. If we had 30 percent more work, then maybe it would be time to hire another inspector, but we’re not there yet,” Asmundson said.
   Because they are at that in-between stage of having too much work for two inspectors but not enough work for three, anytime they fall behind it’s hard to catch up.
   “We’re busy year-round when it comes to electrical inspections, so there isn’t slack time to try and catch up,” Asmundson said.
   He added that he understands it’s a source of frustration when they do fall behind, but doesn’t agree that adding more staff is the answer.
   “We want to fix the problem, but we need to become creative about finding a solution,” Asmundson said.
   The reason the department needs to become creative is because of budget constraints, Asmundson said. The permit fees currently collected would not cover the costs of hiring a third inspector, and there isn’t funding available from elsewhere in the city budget to cover those expenses.
   “We’ve looked into other ways to meet the demand, including hiring someone for when it’s especially busy, but it’s hard to find someone who has the flexibility of working part-time and on call,” Asmundson said.
   Capell counters Asmundson’s statement about budget constraints by noting the permit fees were increased earlier this year, and that an electrical permit can cost more than $700. Permit fees are based on a variety of factors, including a sliding scale based on the cost of the project.
   In 2004, there were 2,203 electrical inspections, and the city is on track for around the same amount for 2005, having completed 1,589 through the month of August.
Between January and July, the revenue generated by electrical inspections was around $200,000, Asmundson said. That figure is up from $176,000 for the same period last year.
   “With all of the money they are bringing in with all these inspections, I find it hard to believe that they can’t afford to hire another inspector,” Capell said. “Every other place we’ve worked on projects, including out in the county, have been to get an inspection done within a day.”
   Asmundson said the new fee increases were instituted to cover the current expenses of the department.
   One of those options is to outsource some of the work when it gets too busy for two inspectors. It’s something that has been done on occasion, but if done too much, Asmundson would expect it to become a union issue.
   “I understand the concerns of these contractors, and the easy solution would be to just hire another guy, but that’s not something a private company would do if they couldn’t afford it, either,” Asmundson said.
   As for Capell, he plans on continuing his protest at City Hall on Fridays during the lunch hour.
   “We’ll keep on doing this until they hire another inspector. It’s the only way they are going to be able to meet their goal of performing an inspection within 24 hours after the request is made,” Capell said.

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