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Concerns arise over Tampa's plan to cross-train construction inspectors

TAMPA — A plan to downsize the city's construction services department has raised concerns among both employees and the building industry.

At issue is a requirement that inspectors become certified in multiple disciplines so one person can handle electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural inspections of new construction.

Plans call for reducing the department staff from 93 employees to 73 and cross-training the remaining inspectors and reviewers of residential construction to handle multiple tasks.

City officials say it's about efficiency, and doing more with less in tight budget times.

Opponents say it poses a safety threat.

"The amount of knowledge and expertise you have to have is compounded four times," said Benjamin Buckley, 55, a city structural inspector with 25 years of experience as a general contractor. "There's going to be a risk that things aren't going to be checked as thoroughly."

Buckley believes he could ultimately be certified in the other disciplines, but doesn't think he'll ever be as proficient in those areas as people who have been specialists for decades.

Similar worries have been expressed by local contractors.

In a letter to Mayor Pam Iorio last month, Robert Bowyer, president of Bowyer Electrical Services, said he understands the city needs to cut expenses but doesn't "feel it should lower the city of Tampa's construction standards."

Nine plumbing contractors also signed a letter sent to Iorio objecting to the restructuring.

"Our primary concern is the potential adverse impact that these changes will have on the health and safety of the residents of Tampa," wrote Kevin Hertenstein, president-elect of the Hills­borough Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors.

Hertenstein notes that it takes five years to become a licensed journeyman plumber and an additional five years of training to become a licensed master plumber.

"The city inspectors should have at least the same experience and training as the contractors they inspect, which is the case now," he wrote.

John Barrios, manager of the construction services division, said employees will have 18 months to get their training, with the city covering the costs.

"This is not just about running off and taking a test," he said. "We have to be convinced that we've mentored them, they understand what they're doing and they'll do the job well."

City Council member Joseph Caetano distributed a memo last week to fellow council members outlining his problems with the plan.

Caetano says the plumbing, electrical and mechanical codes are complicated and if they're not followed properly can have "severe life consequences."

He also questions the underlying premise for reducing the number of employees in the division.

The city administration says the reorganization is necessary to meet its goal of covering the division's operating costs with permit fees.

Two years ago, the city launched a plan to increase permit fees over time to accomplish that goal, with some fees nearly doubling. At the time, the city subsidized the division with nearly $5 million from the general fund.

The new fee structure has been helpful, said Cyndy Miller, director of growth management and development.

But the economic downturn and slowdown of construction activity has reduced the workload by about 25 percent in the past year, she said. A recent consultant's study suggests that the general fund subsidy could reach $8 million this year.

That's due in part to a drop in the number of permits issued. But the figure also grew because a consultant suggested the division should recoup a portion of salaries paid to employees who do work for the division even though their paychecks come from other departments.

Caetano said it's unfair to expect permit fees to cover all of those costs and use that as a justification for layoffs and forcing remaining people to become experts in new fields.

"They're on a mission to get this done, and they'll probably get it done, and we'll pay down the road," he said. "This cannot work."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Concerns arise over Tampa's plan to cross-train construction inspectors 05/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 10:33pm]

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