Is Your City Stealing from You?

Most people don’t think too much about what their city does for them until something goes wrong.

What services do the cities provide to their residents and how much do they charge? Most cities are in the business of providing public safety services through their fire and police departments and through the courts. They also supply services for residents that would be too expensive or too unsafe for each resident to supply for themselves on an individual basis, such as street maintenance, trash collection and sewer and water treatment systems. Cities are also asked by its citizens to provide for services that improve the quality of life for its residents. Services such as libraries, parks, golf courses, economic development and sometimes social services are provided at the request of the citizens as a whole. If you think of it, cities supply these services because their citizens have requested them. We as residents of a city want these services and are willing to be taxed in order to pay for them.

There are additional services provided by most cities; one of these services offers public safety and also consumer protection, this is the service of building safety inspections. Some residents question if this service is necessary. They own their property and should be able to do with it, what they want. Why should the city be given the authority over what you can do on your own property? History has shown that what people do on their property, many times, has a safety or economic effect on the neighboring properties. After major fires in Chicago, New York City, London and other major cities, there were cries from citizens and insurance companies to develop building codes, to keep a fire in one building from spreading to other buildings. After well publicized fires such as the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire in the 1940s and the more recent Station Nightclub fire, where numerous lives were lost, building and fire codes were re-evaluated for their adequacy to protect the public from unseen dangers and the carelessness of some property owners.

Most people have a feeling of security in their homes, hotels, shopping malls, conference halls, high rises, nightclubs and restaurants, because these buildings have been inspected by the building safety and fire departments in the cities where they are located. Most believe that the money paid for the building and fire permits, required when these buildings were constructed, provided them with competent plan review and inspections of the construction, to ensure that they are safe and are constructed in accordance with the building codes the city has adopted. Building officials and fire marshals have been hired and put in place as the responsible persons in the city for building and fire safety. For many years the cities hired highly educated and experienced building and fire professionals to ensure that these services were provided to their citizens.

Now after many years of providing these services, many cities have been attacked for being too strict in building code enforcement and not builder friendly. Building departments have been reorganized into Development Services Departments, which have been created in order to provide better services to the development community, which has been a good change. This has been instrumental in speeding up the permitting and inspection process, but this change has also had a side effect that has devastated the building safety aspect of these departments. Trained and experienced building officials have been replaced with less knowledgeable, politically sensitive individuals, whose responsibility is to quickly issue a building permit and to expedite the construction of the building without getting in the way of development by enforcing the building codes.

The question comes down to, what service is being provided for the money? Has this service been turned into a bureaucratic means of collecting money from the citizens for the cities’ general fund? The cities have made the building permit process mandatory, which can be enforced by court action; it is not voluntary. Permits are required by law and if not obtained, can result in the owner being hauled into court and forced by the threat of jail time and fines to either tear down the unpermitted work or to get it permitted and pay the fees. When a person buys a home there should be an expectation that the city has performed the necessary review and inspections on the home’s construction, in order to ensure safe and long-lasting construction. This should be assumed, because the home buyer paid for this service to be provided by the city when the permit was issued. It may be argued that the contractor pulled the permit and therefore the home buyer didn’t pay for this service. I don’t know of any builder that does not pass the cost of permits on to the buyer.

Building departments are not being adequately staffed with trained, competent plan reviewers and inspectors. The required inspections as outlined in the codes are either not being required or are being done haphazardly, since inspectors are not given the time or authority to properly do the inspection and enforce the codes. Why then do citizens still have to participate in this fraudulent process that does not provide the service they are paying for? Think about what you would do if you took your car into a garage for the transmission to be replaced. You were told that it will cost $2,000 and would be ready later that day. When you go to pick up your car, the mechanic tells you that he didn’t have anyone to work on your car, but you still own him the $2,000, even though you still have an unusable car that still needs a transmission. Is this type of service acceptable? This is the type of service some of the cities are providing, with the blessings and support of their city councils, as long as they don’t hear complaints from the builders that support their campaigns.

Is the solution to do away with codes and building permitting? From the amount of corrections being required by the cities that really perform inspections, it is clear that this service is necessary. The solution is for cities to be held accountable for performing the service they are charging for building permits. Another solution would be to do away with city inspections and to allow for owners of residential or commercial properties to hire a private inspection agency to provide this service. These inspection agencies can be licensed and regulated through the state and could be required to carry an insurance policy that will cover errors and omissions for the work they are inspecting. The benefit to the customer is that the private inspector is answerable to them as a customer, where cities exempt themselves from being held liable for not performing their job.

The reason for this article is to bring this situation to light, in order for citizens to take corrective action as they see fit. Remember, if the citizens of a city decide that they do not want building inspections and are willing to accept the loss of life and property that usually is protected by a functioning inspection department, they do not have to have them. They can pay higher insurance premiums and sleep with one eye open at night, or they can speak up and demand the service they are paying for.