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Amid construction boom, St. Paul has backlog of nearly 59,000 construction permits

Nearly 59,000 construction permits pulled in St. Paul, Minn., 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, according to www.startribune.com.

The Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) is trying to alleviate the issue by hiring more people and simplifying the permitting process. But as construction booms, the city is trying to find a balance between approving new permits and keeping track of old ones.

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

St. Paul is not the only city in the state facing such an issue. In Minneapolis, the city has hired temporary workers to help close thousands of old permits. In Rochester, Minn., inspectors check for outstanding permits when they make visits to inspect new ones. In Hastings, Minn., the inspections department mails letters to property owners to urge them to close old permits, but if there is no response, inspectors may end up knocking on doors.

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 ensure the work meets state building codes. Permit revenue pays for administrative costs—not the inspectors.

The DSI used to close permits automatically without notifying the people who pulled them, but that practice stopped in 2007. The permit holder now must contact the city when the work is done to set up a final inspection. However, 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 often is a last resort, so negligent contractors might not face consequences.

"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," says 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 a backlog of 60,229 open permits, according to data provided by the department. Recent efforts to close some of those 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, who could live in unsafe conditions, not knowing permits for work on their homes have not been closed.

The DSI asked for $530,551 to hire four inspectors to work on the backlog in 2019, according to a budget request document the DSI and other city departments submit annually. Mayor Melvin Carter's proposed budget includes $294,871 to hire two full-time inspectors.

In many cities, the inability to close permits results from a lack of staff. In St. Paul, the goal is to close every open permit, Cervantes says. However, it is unclear how long that could 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 says. "But this thing has been building over the last 10 years."


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