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Inspections improve, but still short

As many as 3,500 permits issued by the Pinellas County Building Department each year are not followed up with an inspection, as required by law, a new audit has found.

The review by the county auditor also found that the department was too slow at responding to complaints and failed to report problem contractors.

The audit mirrored findings in a similar review of the department less than four years ago.

While the 2003 audit found that 22 percent of projects permitted in 2001 were not inspected, the new audit - based on sampling from October 2003 through March 2006 - estimated that 16 percent are not inspected annually.

"It needs to approach zero percent," said Internal Audit Division director Bob Melton. "The building codes and the inspection process are there to protect the public from work that is shoddy."

Building officials say the problem begins with contractors, who by law are supposed to notify the department when their work is ready for inspection, but often don't.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said he would like to see the number of uninspected permits decrease. But he applauded the department's overall performance and questioned the value of more aggressively chasing contractors who don't request inspections.

"Like traffic violators that drive around out on our streets," Spratt said, "we are not resourced to deal with every case where a contractor doesn't follow our procedures."

Among the audit's other findings:

- The department lacks a system for reporting problem contractors to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which can issue sanctions.

- Complaints to the department, such as work being done without a permit, are not getting resolved quickly enough. The audit found that it took an average of seven months to complete a complaint review.

- The department's system for inspecting commercial and industrial properties is inadequate.

The building department serves unincorporated Pinellas, as well as several beach towns. Larger cities such as St. Petersburg have their own departments.

The issue of noninspection raised in the audit does not apply to new construction, which has distinct permitting requirements. At issue are the array of improvements - such as new roofs, electrical upgrades or plumbing work - for which homeowners routinely hire contractors.

When the 2003 audit found that 22 percent of issued permits were not followed by inspections, Spratt, the county administrator, announced that a new computer system was being fast-tracked that would help resolve the problem.

But county officials now say they were unprepared for the complexities involved in implementing the system, which four years later is still not fully operational. Officials estimate delays have added about $130,000 to the project's $750,000 price tag.

"Suffice to say, I have not been pleased with the pace," said Spratt, who hopes the system is operating by January.

Building department director Robert Nagin said that after the 2003 audit, he attempted to get tougher on contractors. Inspectors now make a single follow-up call shortly before permits are set to expire, urging contractors to check in, he said.

The method still relies on handwritten logs, which Nagin said is a weakness. The director said he's been reluctant to refer cases to the construction licensing board because contractors could simply insist that an inspection had been requested, but the call had not been logged.

Once working, the new automated computer system will create a record of when contractors request inspections and issue them a receipt number for their phone calls, Nagin said.

"It's the ability to filter the good guys from the bad guys," he said, "those that are calling in for inspection and those that are not."

Nagin disputes the audit's 16 percent figure, pointing out that not all issued permits are followed by actual work. He puts the number of completed projects not inspected at around 12 percent of all permits issued annually, a figure similar to comparable building departments in Florida.

But it's still not enough, Nagin said.

"I'm not stopping there," he said. "We are going to try to get it as close to zero as possible."

Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.

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