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Law sets new fees to expedite inspections

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What if the state rolled out a new policy and nobody came?

That appears to be the situation regarding a new schedule of fees revealed in November by the Department of Labor & Industry. The new fees, which allow contractors and builders to pay an extra lump sum to expedite their permit inspections, are posted on the department website but were added with no public announcement and little information about what the new fees could mean for builders, inspectors or tenants.

L&I officials have given minimal comment on the new schedule, only responding to requests for information by email. “As required by the Administrative Code,” read one response, “BOIS [Bureau of Occupational & Industrial Safety] began offering expedited services on October 30, 2017, the date that the Administrative Code was signed into law by the governor.”

The new law is Act 40, which amends the 1929 Administrative Code and its list of fees required for inspections and permissions for a wide variety of goods and structures — from bedding and stuffed animals to hospitals and nursing homes. The version signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf includes a lengthy list of new “expedited” fees for additions, lifts, elevators and other structures and features.

Permits for new residential buildings, for example, cost $321 after an inspection is done by the bureau or by a licensed third-party agency. If they want to expedite the inspection, contractors and builders can pay $1,321 under the new fee schedule. To revise previously approved building plans, the bureau charges a fee of $500. To expedite approval, builders can pay $1,500. A standard inspection of passenger elevators cost $663 — the expedited version costs $1,663.

The new fee schedule applies only to structures on state land or the minority of municipalities that opt out of the state’s Uniform Construction Code. In “opt-in” municipalities, the township itself agrees to enforce the UCC and set its own fees. In “opt-out” municipalities, the state bureau enforces its own rules and its own fees.

The new amendment defines “expedited” as “a task to be performed within three days of receipt by the Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Occupational and Industrial Safety of a written request to perform that inspection.”

One issue that could arise from the expedited fees is the number of inspectors the bureau and L&I may need to hire to meet the faster turnaround. “BOIS is evaluating the number of expedited service requests along with the staff necessary to provide the services,” L&I spokesperson Lindsay Bracale wrote in an email. “A final decision has not been made.”

The agency will offer incentives to current staff to complete any extra workload resulting from the updated fees. “To accommodate the additional services, BOIS is shifting workloads to other inspectors or supervisors where appropriate,” said Bracale, “And it is offering overtime and charging a premium rate for after-business-hour inspections where necessary.”

Because of the new fees’ specific focus — and the lack of information provided by L&I — several contractors and industry groups declined to comment for this story.

“No one has seen it yet. It’s still new and fresh,” said Jon O’Brien, executive director of the Keystone Contractors Association, which represents builders around the state. O’Brien noted that association members he had spoken with were unaware of the new fees.

“I know a lot of owners who would pay to have their permit move along,” he said. “It’s a good tool in the toolbox.”

Because inspection enforcement is most often localized by municipality, many townships and counties enjoy different reputations among builders.

“Different areas are better to work with,” said O’Brien, who declined to name any specific municipalities. “If you’re going into different counties or different townships, you know you’re going to have issues.”

Often, said O’Brien, it’s a game of honey over vinegar.

“You have to play nice,” he said. “If you come across with a good, positive attitude, you might get your permit inspections in a timely manner. We’ve seen people walk in and say, ‘We want this for a big project,’ and think the world kind of revolves around them. Those people don’t always get what they think they should get.”

O’Brien, who formerly served as director of industry relations for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Master Builders’ Association, did not recall his experience with Pittsburgh’s permitting process fondly.

“I spent the last 15, 16 years living in the Pittsburgh area so I dealt a lot with them and I was told they’re more backwards than the rest of the state,” he added. “So I don’t really have a positive view of the permitting process.”

Many opt-in municipalities — meaning those that set their own fees and are not affected by the new schedule — work on a 30-day cycle for inspections. Such time frames often work against the goals of builders, Realtors and tenants who frequently require use of a structure in 30 days or less — and those 30 days can start over if inspectors find issue with the addition or structure in question.

So said Art Campbell of Campbell Commercial Real Estate in Lemoyne. “Most of the time when we take a building permit into the municipality, they have 30 days to issue the building permit,” he said. “If they say ‘Well, we have a bunch of questions’ and go back and don’t give us the answers to those questions, then it could go another 30.”

“You might have to update the wiring. Maybe a vestibule needed to be added. The kinds of drinking fountains, the kinds of doorknobs. All these things can come into play,” said Campbell. But, he added, “I’m not familiar enough with the expedited permits, and how, exactly, it will impact these things.”

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