Building inspection accreditation plan panned

Corrections
CORRECTION ON 12/31/09 -- A story in Wednesday’s Review-Journal on a proposal to require further certification of private-sector building inspectors should have said that one county inspector in 2007 overlooked serious defects in remodeling at the Rio, prompting a scathing audit. Although the district attorney filed misdemeanor charges against Harrah’s after an investigation of several casino remodeling projects, those charges were dropped and no charges were ever filed against the county inspector.

Clark County's chief building official wants all companies that inspect construction work to be accredited through a national group, a move that one consultant says would be costly and pointless.

As part of a proposed code change, companies that inspect construction sites would have to be nationally accredited to work in the county's jurisdiction. The new rules probably wouldn't take effect until 2011.

The county now vets companies and puts them on an approved list. They must meet guidelines that include passing tests and proving their members are qualified to inspect, whether it's for large commercial projects or remodeled homes.

Ron Lynn, the county's development services director, said accreditation is a way to have "another set of professional eyes" scrutinizing those who do inspections.

When asked whether recent inspection problems at megacasinos were driving the increased scrutiny, he replied that this was simply part of the ongoing effort to "do a better job."

"It's an enhancement to what we already have," Lynn said.

Property owners hire private firms to inspect construction and write reports of their findings. These reports are made available to contractors doing the work and to the county.

Lynn's proposal comes after a firm approved by the county did sub-par inspections at CityCenter's Harmon Hotel, leading to the building's height being shortened. Also, some county inspectors in 2007 overlooked serious defects in remodeling at the Rio, prompting a scathing audit that accused the inspectors of misdemeanor offenses. The charges were later withdrawn.

Lynn foresees county commissioners reviewing the proposed code by summer. If it passes, it wouldn't take effect for six months to give inspection firms time to adjust, Lynn said.

If accreditation is established, the county might phase out its current program for vetting inspectors -- and the fees it charges them -- or retain parts of the program and some fees, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said. That would depend on whether the county had to screen firms doing specialized work that accreditation bodies don't cover, she said.

One inspector complained that fees would skyrocket from the $550 he pays the county each year to as much as $10,000 the first year he is accredited.

"I don't see the benefit," said Dan Davis, president of Grisham Consulting Services, a three-person inspection firm based in Las Vegas.

The county already has a stringent program for checking inspectors' expertise, so it's hard to justify the need for accreditation and the onerous fees, he said.

Smaller firms would have no choice but to pass the added costs to customers, including homeowners who get their remodeling jobs inspected, he said.

Worse yet, the smaller players could be run out of business, leaving only the bigger firms who often charge heftier fees to inspect, he said.

Davis said Lynn is responding to the highly publicized miscues at the Harmon Hotel.

Earlier this year, faulty inspections by Converse Consultants led to construction flaws being missed on 15 of 22 of the hotel's floors built at that time.

The hotel, set to open later this year, will have its height shortened to 28 stories from the 49 that were planned. MGM officials have said the costs of fixing the missed errors combined with the weak economy forced them to cancel the upper portion.

Davis said county officials want to minimize the blame that can be placed on them if future inspections go wrong. "They don't want the liability issue."

However, Lynn insisted that CityCenter's problems were not the main reason he wants to require national accreditation. He said he had considered the shift well before the Harmon situation happened.

"It was one more component in the decision-making process," he said.

So far, Lynn has looked closely at one entity to examine inspectors: the nonprofit International Accreditation Service (IAS), based in Whittier, Calif. IAS calls itself a public benefit corporation that has been a recognized accreditation body since 1975.

Lynn is president of the agency's nonprofit parent, the International Code Council. The Washington, D.C.-based group develops codes to augment building safety and fire prevention in homes and businesses.

He noted that the county's building department, which employs about 130 full-time inspectors, belongs to the IAS.

Lynn said he recently learned of a Maryland accreditation body named A2LA. Others might come forward in the future, he said, adding that any national group would be eligible under the proposed code. IAS and A2LA were founded in the 1970s, making them among the oldest and most established agencies, Lynn said.

Davis estimates that IAS certification would cost his firm between $5,000 and $10,000 the first year, and then $3,000 to $5,000 a year after that. That's on top of the staff hours doing paperwork and other tasks for the group.

This would be burdensome on a firm that grosses about $350,000 a year, he said.

Only 17 of the roughly 65 companies that do local inspections are certified through IAS, and they have 35 or more employees, Davis said.

Davis argued that accreditation doesn't guarantee higher-caliber work. He pointed to CityCenter's slipshod inspections as proof.

"Look at the fiasco that occurred over there," he said..

Converse Consultants was certified through IAS.

Davis also questioned Lynn's impartiality because of his ties to IAS's parent organization.

"It's a clear conflict of interest," Davis said.

Lynn could use his position as code council president to make accreditation harder for certain firms, Davis said.

Davis said he respects Lynn and doesn't believe he would misuse his authority, but argues that public perception can't be ignored.

"I prefer Mr. Lynn not be involved with it at all," Davis said.

Lynn, however, said he volunteers his time for the code council and stands to gain nothing -- financially or otherwise -- by expanding the IAS membership.

"I think it's disingenuous to accuse me," Lynn said.

He acknowledged that Converse was IAS certified when it did inspections at CityCenter. But he likened it to doctors erring: It's not necessarily a reflection of the boards that licensed them.

The county has penalized the firm by barring it from inspecting projects for six months while the IAS investigates, Lynn said.

Lynn said the initial screening costs the most because the agency sends a team to a firm's office to scour records, question the firm about its knowledge and ensure it can do the job properly.

The basic fee is $2,400 the first year, and then drops to $1,840 per year after that. A firm also pays $400 for each type of inspection it might handle, Lynn said, noting there are four types -- concrete, metal, masonry and soils.

Larger companies would pay an additional $2,050 fee for each branch or division within the business, Lynn said.

IAS also charges $900 per day for labor plus $700 to cover travel costs when its team assesses a firm the first time, according to the agency's Web site.

Lynn said small firms like Davis' could get a discount on yearly fees or be exempt from joining IAS. He said he's more concerned with large companies that demand more scrutiny and tracking.

But Davis said he knows of bigger players who think it's unfair for smaller competitors to get a break.

"So the only thing that will make everybody happy is no new charge," Davis said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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