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Nearly 59,000 construction permits pulled in St. Paul during the past decade have not received a final inspection from the city, leaving it unclear whether work has been done to code, or at all.

The Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) is trying to reduce that number by hiring more people and simplifying the permitting process. But as construction booms, St. Paul is trying to strike a balance between approving a growing stream of new permits and keeping tabs on old ones.

“What keeps me up at night is knowing that there are permits out there that have not been inspected,” said DSI Director Ricardo Cervantes. “My nightmares are about imminent dangers — things blowing up, things falling apart.”

Other cities face a similar dilemma. In Minneapolis, the city has hired temporary workers to help close thousands of old permits. In Rochester, inspectors check for outstanding permits when they make visits to inspect new ones. The Hastings inspections department mails letters to property owners to urge them to close old permits, but if there’s no response, inspectors may resort to knocking on doors.

Permits include inspections

In St. Paul, the DSI issues permits for a wide range of projects, from homeowners installing new burglar alarms to developers constructing apartment buildings. The fee to pull a permit ranges from about $30 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it covers inspections to make sure the work meets state building codes. Permit revenue pays for administrative costs and inspectors.

The DSI used to close permits automatically, without notifying the people who pulled them, but stopped in 2007 at the direction of the city attorney. Now, the permit holder must contact the city when the work is done to set up a final inspection. But if they never do that, the work will remain unchecked and the permit will stay open indefinitely.

Contractors can lose their licenses or even face criminal charges for failing to close a permit. But that level of enforcement is often a last resort, so negligent contractors might not face repercussions.

Cutting corners

“That’s where it hurts, because these people can underbid the people who are going to do it right, if they’re going to cut corners,” said Tom Bakken, chairman of the Association of Minnesota Building Officials. “Typically there is [no consequence] if nobody’s checking their work.”

Between 2007 and 2017, the DSI built up a backlog of 60,229 open permits, according to data provided by the department. Recent efforts to close some of those permits, including a focus on closing plumbing permits, have brought the number down to 58,396. Of those, 36,051 have never been inspected.

“That poses a risk for the city,” Cervantes told City Council members at an Aug. 22 budget committee meeting.

It also poses a risk for property owners. Dana DeMaster bought a house in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood in September 2007, and she lived there with her husband and two young children for eight years before learning that a 2006 permit for roof work had never been closed.

Had a final inspection happened, the city would have learned that workers had roofed over the chimney, and the furnace and hot water heater were venting carbon monoxide into the attic.

The DSI ended up declaring the house uninhabitable. DeMaster and her family moved out and lost the house to foreclosure.

“Ultimately, if that permit had been inspected before that sale happened, the inspector would’ve caught that and the house never would’ve been sold to us,” DeMaster said. “And so for eight years we lived in a house that was literally dangerous. We could’ve died because of this permit inspection — or lack of it.”

The DSI asked for $530,551 to hire four inspectors to work on the backlog in 2019, according to a budget request document that the DSI and other city departments submit annually. Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed budget includes $294,871 to hire two full-time inspectors. St. Paul inspectors can earn annual salaries of more than $100,000.

In many cities, the inability to close permits comes down to a lack of staff. Building officials say much of their time is spent on new construction.

“It’s more important to issue permits to make sure that people are able to initiate their work and get it done and put the city on notice that the work is happening,” said Remi Stone, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Minnesota.

Similar backlog in Mpls.

In Minneapolis, the city issues about 40,000 new permits a year, said Assistant Building Official Doug Determan, and closes out permits after two unsuccessful attempts to do a final inspection. Still, the city has about 48,000 open construction permits. More than 24,000 have been open for more than 18 months, and more than 14,000 of those have never been inspected.

Minneapolis has hired staff to close out old permits, including two temporary plumbing inspectors during the winter of 2016-17 who closed nearly 5,000 permits, Determan said.

“But it’s a struggle,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s not.”

Randy Johnson, director of building safety for the city of Rochester, said his 29-person department is “inundated” with new construction permits and struggles to find the time to follow up on old permits.

In Hastings, where new construction hasn’t reached the pace of larger cities, inspectors are still dealing with a backlog of open permits — and trying to chase down the contractors and property owners responsible for them, said Bakken of the Association of Minnesota Building Officials, who also serves as the city’s chief building official.

“It comes to the point where you can only do so much,” he said. “If you don’t have the budget and time to chase down these old permits, they get put on the back burner.”

In St. Paul, the goal is to close every open permit, Cervantes said. But it’s not clear how long that might take.

“If we had unlimited resources, I would say, yeah, let’s get after this, let’s just take care of this problem this year,” Cervantes said. “But this thing has been building over the last 10 years.”

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509

Correction: Earlier versions said permit revenue pays for administrative costs, but not inspectors.