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Orlando to Outsource Some Building Inspectors

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June 02 --In Orlando , the inspector who checks to see if a new house or hotel meets state building codes may be working for a private company in Tampa .

The reason: City Hall plans to outsource part of its permitting department to keep up with a sharp increase in building permits from a post-recession boom.

As housing and commercial construction bounces back, the city's building inspectors are swamped, averaging 21 on-site inspections a day, well above the targeted number of 15.

"On some days, it's reaching 30 inspections per building inspector," economic-development director Brooke Bonnett said. "Our current staffing levels don't allow us to adjust easily to that building activity."

Construction has increased dramatically in Orlando . The city issued 18,542 permits in 2011, and in 2013 that number jumped to 28,469 -- a 53.5 percent increase.

That amount of construction is outpacing other local governments contacted by the Orlando Sentinel . Unincorporated Seminole County , for example, saw a modest 4 percent increase in building permits from 2011 to 2013. Winter Park performed 8,285 construction inspections in 2011 and 10,059 in 2013, an increase of 21.4 percent.

If the City Council gives the OK at its meeting today, the city will sign a contract with Nova Engineering and Environmental, a Tampa company that will provide two technicians initially, and possibly more in the future. They'll work at City Hall , alongside their government-employee counterparts.

The two private-sector contractors will help the 28 city employees who review plans and conduct building inspections. In exchange, the city will pay Nova Engineering $58 per hour for each contract employee, or an estimated $335,000 for the rest of this year and next year.

Depending on experience and certifications, city building inspectors and plan reviewers earn $42,000 to $63,000 a year, or $20.19 to $30.29 an hour. City officials say that once benefits, vehicles and other expenses are included, they cost the city an average $44 an hour.

The money comes from permit fees rather than taxpayers.

Because construction waxes and wanes with the economy, it's tough to keep the right number of inspectors and plan reviewers, Orlando officials said. The bureaucratic hiring process can take several months, and with construction increasing, experienced inspectors are in high demand.

Outsourcing is their solution to bring more staff on board more quickly, when needed. The number of inspections increased 72 percent from 2011 to 2013, and city officials say it's continuing to increase in 2014.

"We think it will help us manage the peaks and valleys of demand from the development community," Bonnett said.

Hillsborough County , Tampa and Jacksonville have similar arrangements. But it's the first time Orlando has outsourced building inspectors.

City Commissioner Jim Gray said he supports contracting with the private sector if the cost to the city is comparable. And the city's permitting operation needs to be more nimble, he said.

"I get feedback from some of my friends in the development community who tell me, 'Your permitting process is incredibly slow,'" Gray said, adding that City Hall is "having a hard time finding the right people."

City officials didn't solicit competitive bids. Instead, Orlando plans to piggyback on an existing contract Nova Engineering has with Hillsborough . Orlando officials say it's a pilot project. If it's successful, the city will likely seek bids, Bonnett said.

It's unclear how city employees in the Permitting Services Division will react to the agreement with Nova. City administrators said they didn't consult with the labor union that represents inspectors, Service Employees International Union , because it doesn't affect their contract. A union representative contacted by the Sentinel was unaware of the plan.

Administrators argue that the private-sector deal will lighten the workload for city employees.

mschlueb@tribune.com or 407-420-5417407-420-5417

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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