AFSME Local 602 - MSU Moorhead

Plymouth Inspectors Head Off Problems Before They Start

Plymouth inspector Erik Noraas (front) with city engineer Dave Taylor: “We try to make sure it gets done the right way the first time.”

It’s May. With the frost out of the ground and graduation parties a few weeks away, homeowners all around Plymouth suddenly decide they need a new deck.

Before they can dig their first post hole, however, they need Jessica Archer’s stamp of approval. It’s up to her to examine and make sure all residential construction plans meet code, are structurally sound, comply with energy requirements where appropriate, and are free of safety issues.

Her goal is to catch and resolve issues before construction begins. “Once you get in the field,” she says, “if we find an error or discrepancy, it can cost everybody a lot of time and money.”

Department pays for itself

Archer, of Local 3839, is on the front end of Plymouth’s effort to safeguard property and lives. Other inspectors in the field check projects under construction. Co-workers keep tabs on rental units and code problems in existing properties.

Inspectors do it all without adding a penny to the city’s property tax. “It’s all run off permit fees, plan review fees and inspection fees,” says Local 3839’s Erik Noraas. “The fees cover the inspections, the inspectors, the office space, the electricity, the fuel we use in our vehicles and the vehicles.”

Plymouth is Minnesota’s sixth-largest city. Population has more than doubled in the last 20 years, passing 71,000 and still growing. But the housing recession hit the building department hard; the city laid off 15 percent of its housing inspectors in 2009.

Getting it right the first time

Noraas, a field inspector for most of his 11 years with the city, now inspects rental properties, whether they are apartments, townhomes or single-family rentals. His primary focus is life safety. That means checking smoke detectors, circuit breakers, screens and windows, plumbing, fire doors, corridors and stairways.

In multi-family developments, he typically checks 10 to 15 percent of units. He’ll inspect more if he spots problems. “The managers, a lot of them are really good about keeping the buildings up. They work very well with us,” he says.

But enforcing code with builders or homeowners who dispute what’s required isn’t always that easy. “You can’t be adversarial, because then you’ve lost,” Noraas says. “If you’re just butting heads, you’re not getting anywhere…. So you stay calm and cool, and maybe give them a day or two to cool off, and come back to it. And you explain to them, ‘This is how it is.’

“A lot of it is just education, explaining how it’s supposed to be done and why it’s supposed to be done this certain way. And once you take some time to talk with them reasonably and respectfully, it’s no problem. They understand. They may not like it, but they understand.”

Adapted from the July-August 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine.

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