Building blues: Bemidji contractors frustrated with city inspection process

In April, a group of seven Bemidji business owners -- including a developer and contractors working in building, HVAC and plumbing -- sat down with the Pioneer to share their frustrations about the lengthy construction process as it relates to the city of Bemidji.

Construction is ongoing at a Bemidji Presidential Apartments construction site on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Houses, apartments, businesses -- buildings. We spend most of our time in these places, yet do we really know what it takes to create them?

Sure we know there is paperwork and planning, wood and tools required, and some people power involved. When you dig deeper, though, it’s a bit more complicated.

In April, a group of seven Bemidji business owners -- including a developer and contractors working in building, HVAC and plumbing -- sat down with the Pioneer to share their frustrations about the lengthy construction process as it relates to the city of Bemidji.

Those at the table included Bob Whelan of Whelan Properties, Mike Cleven of Cleven Cabinets and Construction, Howie Zetah of Zetah Construction, Dave Baker of Baker Heating and Air, Dustin Holloway of GoldPine Home and PinePals, Mark Mann of North Country Electrical Services and Tom Wagner of Wagner Plumbing and Heating.

In expressing their grievances with the city to the Pioneer, it quickly became apparent that the primary issues lay with the city building department, with the brunt of things, in their opinion, being specifically related to the building official, Cris Bitker.


“As far as the personnel at city hall over the years, there have been some good ones, there have been some bad ones,” Whelan said. “But nobody that's more difficult to work with than the building inspector we have right now, Cris Bitker.”

The city has had a few building official changes in the past decade, the baton was passed from longtime official Mike Miller to Bryan Kerby in 2018 -- who now works as a state building official -- before Bitker took over the role of building official to lead the department in October 2020.

To refute the claims of the contractors who have said he is inexperienced, Bitker laid out his credentials explaining that he worked as a general contractor in Bemidji for 18 years before he began working for the city.

Along with him, there are three other inspectors, which he said all had some level of building experience prior to joining the department.

“Having that background of experience really helps you understand what these contractors have to go through and gives you a lot of perspective,” Bitker said.

Though he has experience as a contractor himself, many of the contractors speaking with the Pioneer didn’t seem to know or acknowledge it, saying they feel he is inexperienced.

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Bemidji City Building Official Cris Bitker stands on a Bemidji Presidential Apartments construction site on May 4, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)


“In most cases, people in the position evolve, and over time they get to the point where you can work with them,” said Whelan, who is the developer behind the Bemidji Presidential Apartments among many other projects in the city. “They learn the big picture and they become part of the process. Mike Miller, for example, was wonderful to work with. He would come in and his idea was ‘what do we have to do to move this project ahead?’ where Cris Bitker’s idea is ‘what can I do to hold this project up?’”

Several of the others at the table chimed in, adding their own frustrations with the department.

“What it really comes down to is that everybody here wants Bemidji to excel,” said Howie Zetah, owner of Zetah Construction. “We are all about promoting Bemidji, bringing business here, and we want to do what we can to make that happen. And I think from the city aspect, they need to look at it the way a business would.

“You have to have relationships, you have to have the right people in place that can get you there. I don’t want this to be a slam on Cris as a person, I think he’s just inexperienced. We know the code is the code and no one is trying to get around that. We just want the relationship and respect to be there.”

Zetah also explained how in order to have the tax base and for Bemidji to grow, the city needs to look for “a more seasoned official who can establish relationships with builders and developers and make things work.”

“A lot of us have the idea that we don’t want Cris around, because you know if he’s there something is going to go wrong, or it’s going to get delayed or cost you money,” Zetah said. “Where a more seasoned official will have some sense and flexibility and realize that, ‘Hey if this is a quarter-inch off and you’re going to open tomorrow, you know what, let’s let this go for now.”

“The city doesn’t seem to see the financial costs of so much of this,” said Mark Mann, owner of North Country Electrical Services. “I’m one of the many subcontractors who work for some of these developers, and some of the things we’ve been required to do for them has cost these guys a ton of money that was unnecessary.”

It was apparent that the men were fed up with the situation, and in light of such serious accusations, the Pioneer reached out to Bitker and city staff to get their take on things.


The city’s perspective

The contractors explained that prior to their meeting with the Pioneer, they had reached out to Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince.

When asked about the situation, Prince told the Pioneer his involvement began in March when he was contacted by Whelan, who told Prince he had concerns about development work in the city.

“Anytime a constituent calls me with a concern, I want to give them time to listen and better understand whatever problem or issue they might be having,” Prince said. This led to him and Whelan scheduling a meeting.

Prince invited Ward 2 City Councilmember Josh Peterson to the meeting for added perspective, and some of the contractors who work for Whelan also came and gave them an overview of what their concerns were with the city building department.

Once their issues were voiced, Prince said considering City Manager Nate Mathews supervises the department in the city, the issue fell under his jurisdiction, so he looped Mathews in on things.

“When I brought the situation to Nate’s attention, he responded immediately and was very open to meeting with the contractors, to hearing them out and to starting that process of investigation,” Prince said. “So everything indicates to me that Nate has taken the complaints seriously.”

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Bemidji City Building Inspector Matt Ridlon, left, and Building Official Cris Bitker inspect concrete footings on May 4, 2021, at a Presidential Apartment construction site. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)


When asked his opinion on the grievances, Prince said he tried to look at both sides.

“I’m no building inspector, I’m not a contractor or builder, I’m none of those things by experience or education,” Prince said. “That said, I suspect that ordinance and rules and the enforcement of them are all subject to a certain level of interpretation. There is what’s in the book and how you apply it and that is going to be a little different from employee to employee.”

Prince explained that with the personnel changes in the position in recent years, contractors may be seeing some differences in the consistency of how those rules are enforced based on who has been in the job at the time, just because they are all different people.

“But I think each one of them in their own way has been trying to make sure that the rules are followed,” Prince said.

Mathews said that this has been an ongoing issue with a select few in town, with Whelan being the primary advocate in presenting things to the city.

During the meeting with the Pioneer, Whelan also alluded to this, explaining that last year before starting a building project he spoke with Mathews to ensure he wouldn’t have some of the many issues he said had arisen with Bitker on his last project. Noting that at the time Bitker was still an inspector, not the building official.

Whelan said that meeting with Mathews “mostly felt like finger-pointing and them not really accepting what we had to say.”

Bitker noted that he’s only interacted with Whelan a handful of times, and they have always been cordial encounters, leading them to assume things happening on the job with the subcontractors are not being correctly communicated back to Whelan.


“I coordinated a meeting directly with Bob and Cris and said, ‘Look, we want to talk to you about some of the things we’ve found with your subs,’ because he’s told me himself he has no issues with Cris, he said he had only talked to Cris like three times before going on this warpath,” Mathews said. “So to me it seems, not to throw any of his guys under the bus, that a lot of things are getting lost in translation.”

“All we do when we go out there is make sure they are building things to code and if so they will get no corrective orders from us,” Bitker said. “We aren’t making up any rules, there’s no city of Bemidji code, there’s only state building code. I tell all of these guys, ‘If it’s not in the codebook, I am not going to make you do it.’”

The background

Bitker said one of the main purposes of the building department is to ensure public safety by enforcing state building codes within the city limits.

He explained that every six years building codes are updated to include any changes or revisions made at the state level. The most recent update took place in March of this year, requiring an immense amount of education within the department to bring them all up to speed on the changes. This also results in changes to enforcement out in the field, which he said the contractors definitely feel the impact of.

“It never gets less, it always gets more. Just more codes and more codes and more codes,” Bitker said. “Plus, the amount of information we’re required to have before issuing a building permit is so much more than it used to be. I have this whole list of things that I have to receive before I can issue a building permit and 15 or 20 years ago there wasn’t all that.”

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A stack of state codebooks sits on Bemidji City Building Official Cris Bitker’s desk in City Hall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

He said there can be quite a bit of pushback at times, which usually boils down to contractors, or developers behind the scenes, not wanting to spend the extra time or money on things in order to bring them up to code.


“That can result in a lot of apprehensions sometimes when you have to show up on those job sites,” Bitker said. “It’s a little bit like when a police officer shows up on a scene and everyone’s like ‘Uh oh the cops are here,’ and it can be like that with us, too. I get that, no one likes to be told when they are doing something wrong.”

This fact was apparent in listening to the contractor’s complaints, as many expressed apprehension to Bitker, or any inspector, arriving on their job sites.

“A lot of those things they have issues with were before me, a lot of them were not me,” Bitker said in his defense to the accusations. “It’s just falling on me now because I’m the one in charge.”

While staying up to date on the current codes and regulations is a struggle at times, Bitker acknowledged there are benefits to it.

“It keeps things on a level playing field for everybody,” Bitker said. “It was frustrating when I was a contractor to bid against people who weren’t necessarily doing things correctly, and I would lose the job because they could underbid. So if everyone is bidding jobs per the code it’s a more level playing field.”

He said in the end, the city’s most important priority is public safety.

“Is the building structurally sound, do we have the right egressing, do we have the right fire-stopping issues and (are we) making sure it’s accessible for people with any disabilities or special needs?” he said. “If we get those things accomplished, we’ve done pretty well.”

The process

The first step when it comes to construction, remodeling or demolition projects in the city is applying for a permit. The permit, which contains a whole slew of details about the project, is then reviewed by the Joint Planning Board to ensure all the appropriate variances, permits and rezoning requirements are met, among other things, before moving on to the building plans.

Now a building plan can’t just be a basic piece of paper with a few details. It must show the following:

  • Foundation plan

  • Floor plan

  • Roof plan

  • Elevation

  • Sections and details

  • Plumbing, heating and electrical plan

Then comes the plan review, which is required for all new buildings and remodeling that include any occupancy changes. According to Bitker, one of the main purposes of the plan review is to ensure the blueprints match what’s in the state codebooks.
If an error is found on a blueprint in the plan review, the inspector makes a note of it, and then it goes back to the architect so they can make the necessary corrections to the blueprints.

One issue raised by one of the contractors was how plan reviews are outsourced outside the city at times, which he feels resulted in issues for one of his recent jobs.

Bitker explained cities all over the country outsource reviews to private companies at times when local staff is too overloaded in an effort to streamline the process. He said he hasn’t noticed any differences with the reviews being done on the city level versus being outsourced.

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Bemidji City Building Official Cris Bitker inspects a blueprint at his desk on May 4, 2021, in City Hall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

He explained some problems can develop when major issues are found because of plans not being developed in accordance with state code. Architects are also responsible for creating code-compliant blueprints, but Bitker said sometimes things just get missed, which is why the process requires so many people to be involved before the final project is unveiled.

“Blueprints are kind of a 10,000-foot view of a project. No architect is going to be able to put every single detail into a blueprint, that’s just not possible. So that’s why it’s incumbent on each tradesman to know their code -- HVAC, electricians, builders -- they all need to know their specific rules and codebook. Because everything isn’t going to be on a blueprint.”

Once the plan review is complete, then any other necessary permits can be applied for such as plumbing, sewer, water, mechanical and so forth.

After all that is completed then the building process can actually begin. This leads to the next stage of the game: inspections.

The inspections

There is a long list of required inspections throughout the building process, and all of them must be scheduled with city staff so they know when to come and check things out.

“We try to accommodate and get out there as fast as we can,” Bitker said. “It’s not our intention to ever slow things down. A lot of these guys in our department were contractors so we know how things go, we want to get out there and keep the job moving.”

Inspections include the following:

  • Site inspection

  • Footing inspection

  • Framing inspection

  • Insulation inspection

  • Interior sheeting inspection

  • Final inspection

“We’re on these jobs maybe 10% of the whole project,” Bitker said. “And we don’t check every single thing, we spot check two or three details and go, ‘OK these look good, looks like you’re doing this all the way through, we’re good,’ and that usually gives us a good idea of things. If we checked every single thing we’d have to be there 40 hours a week.”
He said if they notice things are consistently being done incorrectly they will have a conversation or meeting with the contractor and go over the blueprints again and ensure they understand what’s going on and try to get things back on track.

“Sometimes that works, other times we get a lot of pushback and people just will not make changes and do things correctly,” Bitker said. “But ultimately in the codebook, the responsibility for code compliance falls back on the individual.”

The codebook specifically states: Every person who performs work for the installation or repair of building, structure, electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing systems, for which the code is applicable, shall comply with the code. The person, firm or organization securing the permit is responsible for code compliance for the work being performed.

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A section of the state builders codebook explains those responsible for ensuring code-compliance on job sites. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Now what happens a lot is they want to put that responsibility back on the building department, but we are simply checking to make sure they are following the rules and those things are happening,” Bitker said. “But the reality is that if we weren’t here it’s ultimately their responsibility to do that even if we don’t check something.”

If something does have to be changed out in the field, the department writes up a corrective order on what to fix before moving forward.

“If they do what’s in the blueprint and what’s expected of them, in reality, there should be no corrective orders,” Bitker said. “I’ve had jobs where the contractor was really good and there were only one or two really small corrective orders, those are the best. I hate giving out corrections, it just about makes me sick because sometimes it can be a big deal.”

He said that as a contractor of many years he knows how frustrating it is to have to go back and fix things.

“It’s a tough job because we are here as that last line of defense to catch errors, and that’s hard to tell people sometimes,” Bitker said.

Once the final inspection is completed at that point the building department can issue a certificate of occupancy and the process is finally over.

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A list shows the number of inspections and permits required before the city can issue a certificate of occupancy. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

The impact

Having code-compliant buildings not only make homes and neighborhoods safer, according to Mathews, it also makes the city more attractive to outside people looking to live in the city and future developers.

“I look at it as a way to stabilize investments,” Mathews said. “If someone’s going to build a brand new house they know it’s good, and the neighbors know it’s good and that helps stabilize the neighborhood. The same goes for rental properties, everyone knows they will get inspected so it keeps everyone accountable.”

Mathews also said the need for safety increases with Bemidji serving as a medical and education hub to northwest Minnesota.

“We need those professional people to know that this is a safe town and we want people to invest into our community, come and raise their kids here and know it’s good,” Mathews said.

Prince agreed with that sentiment but said he also knows the city still has things to work on when it comes to relationships and making things affordable for everyone.

“I really hope that all the contractors in Bemidji can have a good, positive relationship with all the departments in the city,” Prince said. “Obviously development is an important and critical part of the growth and tax base of the city, so we want to be able to promote that. But at the same time, we have to make sure that everything we do is done correctly and safely, and it’s done fairly and equally for everyone involved.”

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A crew works on concrete footings on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at a Bemidji Presidential Apartments construction site. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Prince said he wants the city to be attractive to contractors and developers because they have to work hand in hand to get projects done.

“It’s always a work in progress,” he said. “I don’t believe that we have achieved that place where we are doing 100% in every area -- I’m not sure any city has -- but if you look around Bemidji we have a lot of development and good things happening.”

He said he knows there will always be certain elevated costs related to building in the city, such as tying into city water and sewage, that might not be needed outside of the city. There is also not the same level of code enforcement taking place outside of the city limits, though the regulations remain the same anywhere in the state.

“We want to do a better job, because we know we can get better -- every community can get better,” Prince said. “The goal is to identify how we resolve any issues that are in front of us now and continue to make our city business-friendly so we can attract more economic development and make our community the best it can be.”

Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or
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