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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The danger of farming out building inspections

SCOTT KEELER | Times St. Petersburg building officials posted "stop work" notices on these two houses in Snell Isle, developed by Aspen Venture Group, because the floor plan, elevation, and roof of one were not in compliance with plans approved by the city.

Florida's construction boom is highlighting the state's shortage of building inspectors, whose essential work ensures that new buildings are safe and structurally sound. Cities and counties are filling the gap by allowing private inspectors to perform some of their work — with concerning results. Outsourcing has its place, but building inspections are one government function that should be discharged by the government.

The Tampa Bay Times' Susan Taylor Martin wrote recently about a St. Petersburg couple battling their builder over construction flaws and code violations in their 2-year-old house. The developer had hired a private inspector who signed off on the house despite the problems. Now the city has stopped work on two other homes by that developer, Aspen Venture Group, and acknowledged the pitfalls of using private building inspectors. The cases should serve as a warning not to cut corners on new development that will shape communities for decades.

Blame it on Florida's growth. New construction is flourishing, making it hard for local governments to keep up, and there aren't many building inspectors looking for work. St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa have openings they've been unable to fill. Inspectors can make significantly more money in private business or even working for local governments on a contract basis rather than joining the staff. Florida imposes rigorous licensing requirements on building inspectors, including a four-year degree in a construction-related field or at least five years' experience in a trade. Even under such difficult market conditions, enforcing safety and quality must trump expediency.

St. Petersburg is considering a new policy that would require one of its own inspectors to approve new homes before anyone moves in. That final check is likely to address life safety issues, such as proper wiring, but may not necessarily include checking quality or ensuring that work complies with approved plans. To that end, City Council member Amy Foster is seeking a change in the city code that spells out specific criteria the city building official can use to deny private inspections from specific builders or from specific private inspectors. State law already gives the building official that authority, but Foster wants the code to be more specific. Those added layers should help protect homeowners and bring more uniformity to the process.

As long as development across Florida continues at its current pace, building inspectors will be in high demand. That's good news for the industry, but it's not a reason for local governments to shift the work of upholding building codes into outside hands. Homeowners and builders alike need a robust, consistent inspection process overseen by local government to ensure that everyone is protected and work is done right.