How Private Inspectors Might Save Both
By TODD PERSONS
Central Florida’s sustained building boom and the state’s tough laws governing how construction sites are inspected might be on a collision course. On one side of the issue are developers and contractors seeking the Holy Grail of construction: “Time is Money.” On the other side are overworked and sometimes undermanned city and county building departments whose inspectors face the daunting task of examining and signing off on multiple steps in the construction process. Owners and builders want it done yesterday. Municipal building inspectors are often backed up for days, even weeks.
Adding to the pressure are stringent state regulations that require inspectors to be certified in up to four separate disciplines – structural, electrical, mechanical and plumbing, with each discipline requiring three years (it used to be five) of on the job experience and a rigorous test before certification. Saying that a certified inspector in any one of those specialties is in demand in booming Central Florida is an understatement. Identifying a building official who is certified in all four inspection criteria sections is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Universal Engineering Sciences (Universal) found its “needle” in S. Dale Baker, CBO, MCP, the manager of the Building Inspection Department with Universal (www.universalengineering.com), a Florida engineering consulting firm headquartered in Orlando. Baker and his team are part of a growing trend in the development/building industry that has turned to private companies like Universal to provide the services of certified inspectors on projects. Many developers who use private providers for inspections agree that it can speed up the building process. Baker said that one client stated that using private inspectors shaved 90 days off his job schedule. City and county building inspectors still have the right to audit the process of the private inspectors and to issue a final Certificate of Occupancy.
Do municipalities embrace the use of private provider inspection services that Universal and several other firms in Central Florida offer? Baker said that a growing number of communities welcome the help of private provider inspectors. However, some larger cities and counties are resistant, complaining about the potential for costly mistakes by private firms. Universal’s President Mark Israel takes emphatic issue with the notion that private inspection services are inferior to public services.
“Municipal inspectors can work provisionally under the municipal building official’s license. All private inspectors must have their own license,” Israel said, adding that municipal inspectors’ work also is protected by governmental sovereign immunity, and as such they are not liable for potential negligence. Private certified inspectors have no immunity and must carry $5 million in professional liability insurance, which must be maintained five years after the project they inspect is completed.
“Private inspectors are all licensed professionals who put their licenses, their liability and the reputation of themselves and their companies on the line every day. And don’t forget, the city or county in whose jurisdiction the project exists, always has the final word,” Israel stated.
Baker, whose easy smile belies the growing responsibility of new clients just discovering the advantages private side inspection services offer, said that in addition to handling jobs in large cities and counties, firms like Universal are also being hired by governments and public agencies such as smaller towns, school boards and other public-funded agencies. The Municipal Support program augments hard-pressed public staffs and small building departments with private company professionals.
“We can offer limited or full services to these towns and public agencies whenever they’re needed,” Baker said. “We can even run a town’s entire building department, saving the community a lot of time and even taxpayer dollars. It’s because we can be flexible and lease out our people and services for just what is needed without further adding to a town’s payroll.”
Baker said that Universal currently has instituted the Municipal Support program in several Central Florida communities, including Winter Springs and Casselberry in Seminole County, and Eatonville and Belle Isle in Orange County.
Winter Springs City Manager Kevin Smith is enthusiastic about the Municipal Support program. “Like a lot of Central Florida towns, Winter Springs (population 35,000) is growing,” Smith said. “With a private company like Universal we can use our public resources more effectively when responding to our customers’ needs. I believe municipalities our size and larger would greatly benefit from this kind of public/private partnership, as we have. It truly is the future.”
Baker also sees the future and wishes he had more certified inspectors on Universal’s team. “We don’t have to sell the private inspection end of our business. It finds us,” he said. “We just need more inspectors to find us.”