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Suspect inspections

A 2003 audit of the Pinellas County Building Department found its performance fell short in three major areas: too many building projects were completed without required inspections; complaints about projects took too long to resolve; and routine inspections of commercial and industrial buildings required by the county code scarcely were done at all. This is progress?

In 2003, county officials said they would "fast-track" installation of an automated system to flag uninspected projects, hire temporary workers to help them catch up on backlogged inspections, and get tougher on contractors who failed to call in for inspections.

It is disappointing that three years later, another audit has found significant problems remain in the same three areas.

The news isn't all bad. This time, auditors sampled permits dated from October 2003 through March 2006 and estimated that 16 percent of jobs never were inspected before the permits expired. That's high - as many as 3,500 projects per year - but not as high as the 22 percent found in the 2003 audit. The new audit also confirmed that the Building Department issues permits for new work in a proper, timely way.

But just as in 2003, the problems arise after building permits are awarded. In addition to failing to inspect 16 percent of permitted building projects, the department missed inspecting about 18 percent of demolition permits. And industrial and commercial properties still get haphazard inspections at best, with only two inspectors for 28,000 properties, no written procedures on how to conduct such inspections, and not even a form on which to record inspection results. Also, auditors found that on average, complaints made to the department had lingered a whopping 214 days.

And the county's promise to fast-track that automated system? Three years later, it still isn't fully deployed. The department did hire temporary workers to whittle down a big backlog of roofing inspections.

The Building Department does not get all of the blame for insufficient inspections. State law assigns contractors the responsibility of calling in for inspections, but many Pinellas contractors continue to thumb their noses at the law. They just don't call, and the county does not have an adequate system for tracking them. The county doesn't fine violators and does not even report them to the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which could mete out discipline.

The public is at risk when projects are not properly inspected, and contractors not called to account for sloppy work can continue to victimize consumers.

The county Building Department is responsible for protecting public safety through permitting and inspections, and it must work harder to implement the auditors' reasonable recommendations. If the department needs more money, it should get it. And it is way past time for county commissioners, in concert with the Construction Licensing Board, to create fines or other penalties for contractors caught ignoring the law.