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Code Enforcement completes inspector realignments

Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement is completing its year-long rollout of inspector teams devoted to either commercial or residential projects, part of an effort to boost customer service.

The realignment, which is scheduled to launch June 27, will assign 52 inspectors to new construction, remodels and additions to single-family homes and townhomes. Another 38 will cover commercial projects that are smaller than 300,000 square feet, additions and remodels to schools, and multifamily projects that are four stories or fewer. Both teams will be supervised by field managers.

The move completes a shift in inspector responsibilities that was begun last year to help quell customer complaints regarding difficulties in navigating the permitting and inspection process. Those concerns were outlined in a 2015 Gartner Inc. report commissioned by the city and county that found, among other things, a need for improved consistency on code interpretation and application and a better understanding among employees on what their roles entail.

Phase one began a year ago, with the launch of a 12-member team focused specifically on “mega” projects, including commercial development larger than 300,000 square feet, hospitals, and apartment buildings higher than four stories. The team has now grown to 18.

That clarification of employee duties, prompted in part by the recent boom in multifamily construction and high-rises that are more difficult to inspect, alleviated the need to “run back and forth” between different types of projects, said Ebenezer Gujjarlapudi, the director of the county Land Use and Environmental Services Agency that oversees code enforcement.

The primary goals were better communications and increased pass rates, with team members dedicated to a specific project from beginning to end. Previously, they worked on multiple development types, whether they were office, mixed-use, or residential, based on geographical location.

The result, Gujjarlapudi said, has been increased customer satisfaction. Inspectors have time to become knowledgeable and specialize in one area of code. And, he said, having a single inspector dedicated to a project from start to finish promotes relationship-building with contractors and reduces confusion.

“The building inspector finds issues and has expectations,” he said. “And the contractor understands what needs to be fixed.”

In addition, members of the newly formed units are certified in two trades. Each is charged with either building and plumbing or electrical and mechanical functions.  That will allow contractors and developers to request separate inspections within the same time frame, reducing waiting periods.

And, according to code enforcement officials, the overhaul better aligns with the structure of the state’s Department of Insurance. That is expected to lead to a better working relationship between local field managers and code consultants in Raleigh.

LUESA not only handles building inspections, but oversees plan reviews and permitting processes to ensure that projects abide by state rules.

Bryan Holladay, government affairs manager at the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, said that so far the program has been successful in improving customer service.  The GCAA and other organizations worked with the county to implement the changes.

“The response has been very positive in the mega projects,” he said, explaining that the large multifamily buildings going up around Charlotte are quite different from those built a decade ago. Some feature wrap-around or podium parking, which requires greater knowledge on the part of the inspector.

“Products are more innovative and complex,” he said. By focusing on a single type of development, he said, inspectors “are able to have a stronger skill set to deal with these larger, more complex buildings.”

“We’re really encouraged by the path we’re going down,” he said, adding that he hopes the new wave of inspectors focused on either smaller commercial or residential projects will alleviate remaining consistency and timing issues.

The Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, REBIC, in 2014 made several recommendations to help solve what it considered ongoing problems. Those included code officials often failing inspections over items not called for in construction plans or because they disagreed with a decision made during the plan review. The coalition also cited late or no-show inspections.

Gujjarlapudi said that the county also is making progress on another issue raised in the Gartner report: the need for planning and managing technology to address gaps, redundancies and inefficiencies regarding software.

The report suggested that the city and county either consolidate or integrate software and applications that offer the same services. The city handles plan reviews and land inspections to ensure that projects are in compliance with local ordinances.

With that goal in mind, the county next month plans to install a new version of POSSE, which stands for public one-stop service engine. It is the main software program for permitting and inspections and allows online tracking of the development process.

But integrating city and county systems into a single portal will likely take a year or two, Gujjarlapudi said.

He looks at the changes taking place in the code enforcement department as an opportunity.

“We’ve come a long way,” Gujjarlapudi said. “We’re constantly trying to adapt to our customers.”

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