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'Hitting the tip of the iceberg' -- City building inspectors struggle to keep pace with low staff, high construction numbers

This town home development at South Shore Villa is one of the many construction projects that have kept city building and fire safety inspectors busy this year. Construction totals this year are about $3 million more than last year at this time. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- The city of Bemidji is undergoing a surge in construction even as it struggles to keep up with building and fire safety inspections with limited staff.

Construction in 2014 is about $3 million ahead of last year. As of July, Bemidji has seen more construction so far this year --$13.4 million -- than last year's July year-to-date total, $10.3 million, according to city statistics.

Construction in Bemidji is returning to pre-recession levels, but the recent jump is nothing remarkable, building official Mike Miller said this past week.

"When you look at the building permits, we don't have any one big project that's really kicking us up and over," Miller said. "It's a lot of small stuff."

Although the bump might not be very pronounced, city staff are beset with backlogs of pending permit and fire safety inspections.

The city's Building Department and the Fire Department are both understaffed in their inspection teams: Miller is tied up with maintenance duties at city buildings and Fire Chief Dave Hoefer has to both run the fire department and serve as fire marshal. Firefighters on the department help with recurring inspections of high-priority buildings such as buildings where alcohol is served, assisted living facilities and gas stations. However, it is Hoefer that handles the new building inspections.

"We probably average...250-300 inspections a year," he said. "That's probably just hitting the tip of the iceberg of what we really need to do."

A staff memo to the City Council gave a similarly bleak assessment.

"A well balanced fire prevention program includes public education, code enforcement and fire protection engineering," it read. "Currently these functions are performed on a minimal basis, if at all."

Miller said his department was spread thin, as well. Three employees try to inspect property as a whole in the city and 1.5 employees handle inspections for 992 rental properties alone, he said.

It usually takes other cities 30 days before a building permit is issued, Miller said, but it takes about a month before Bemidji officials even examine applicants.

"I've got nine plans waiting here for review right now," he said when interviewed Wednesday.

Typically it takes about two weeks after the city gets to a permit application before the permit is issued, Miller said. Rental inspections are more current, he said.

The backlog prompted the city to consider adding two positions in 2015 to help speed up the inspection process: a fire marshal/inspector and a building maintenance worker/inspector. The fire marshal would cost $88,000 with the city covering $51,000 and the Rural Fire Association covering the remaining $37,000. The added cost would mean a property tax levy increase of 1.2 percent. The building inspector would cost $65,000 but as city Finance Director Ron Eischens pointed out to the council, more than half would be paid for by revenue from inspection fees, an "effective utilization of resources" in his opinion.

Adding another person to the Building Department could cut the application process time to several weeks, Miller said.

The city is leaving money on the table by not completing inspections, Chattin said during the work session.

"(Miller) has $50,000 of state fees he could collect this year if he's able to do those inspections," Chattin said. "If he doesn't have the time to do those inspections, those are revenues that we will not get."

There were no formal motions Monday to approve adding the two positions to the budget.

Interviewed Wednesday, Chattin thought the city would add the building inspector position but Hoefer didn't think the city would add the fire marshal position.

"I don't believe the position is going to get funded for 2015," Hoefer said. "We'll continue to do our best with a limited number of resources knowing that we aren't going to be able to do all the inspections that we need to be doing."

The final budget will likely not be approved until December, Chattin said.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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