Isanti council hammers away at inspection woes

A discussion regarding MNSPECT took place at the Isanti committee of the whole meeting Aug. 20, after Isanti city staff were instructed at the Aug. 7 city council meeting to put together some numbers, as well as the city’s options, pertaining to building permitting and inspection. 

The committee of the whole, which includes mayor Jeff Johnson and all council members, discussed at length the complaints received by residents about its contracted building inspection company MNSPECT, despite being locked into a contract for services through Dec. 31, 2020, with no out clause. 

Scott Qualle, of MNSPECT, was also in attendance.

Isanti community development director Sheila Sellman presented a memo with options about what can be done about the complaints, including: work with MNSPECT and the builders regarding the complaints; terminate the contract with MNSPECT if both parties agree, and find a replacement – either another firm, an in-house building inspector and building official, or sharing one with another city. The memo also included costs for the different options.

Due to the binding contract with MNSPECT, none of the options was discussed further at the meeting. 

Council member Steve Lundeen opened up the discussion by stating builders in Lake Elmo are having the same complaints about MNSPECT as builders in Isanti – permits and reviews are not being done quickly enough. He noted the city is paying MNSPECT $180 per hour.

“I want to know one thing, why is it taking so long to turn these over?” Lundeen asked. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years. I have never seen a permit take six to eight weeks. You need to request your information all in one shot, not then submit and resubmit again.”

Lundeen shared his experience of working through the permitting process with MNSPECT when building a new home last year, noting he submitted the information required for heat loss regulation by filling out a form provided by MNSPECT, but they required more steps to reach compliance. 

“You cannot require any more stringent code compliances than the state already allows,” Lundeen said. “If you are, you’re going above and beyond.”

Lundeen added that builders will end up leaving Isanti because they do not want to deal with MNSPECT, which will affect the city’s revenue base. 

Taking a closer look

In response to complaints the city is receiving, MNSPECT and Spellman pulled 12 permit requests for review, and each of those requests were approved within nine business days, Qualle said.  

“To clarify what that means,” he said, “the clock is not counting against us when we are waiting for something.”

Johnson noted there are currently 13 complaints, and more coming in all the time.

Qualle reminded Johnson that he has requested complaints be forwarded to MNSPECT in writing with specific details so the company can research and respond to the complaints. 

“If I don’t get contractors, dates, addresses or permit numbers,” Qualle said, “how can I possibly respond to a complaint about ‘those guys do this’ or ‘those guys don’t do that’ if I don’t know what the facts are?” 

“I would be emailing you all the time, and I’m just being honest,” Johnson responded. 

Qualle said that when a complaint is made, it is important to discern whether the resident is complaining about code, attitude or timeliness. If the resident is simply upset that they have to comply with state building code, Qualle said there’s nothing to be done.  

“I’m doing what you asked me to do,” he said, “what you pay me to do, what you expect me to do – to protect the residents from builders who have a natural incentive to cut corners and do things less expensively so they can put additional money in their pockets. That’s why we have building code and licensed contracting in Minnesota.”

Lundeen questioned why MNSPECT would be asking for additional engineering in plans if an engineer has already approved the plans. 

Qualle said there are frequent instances where an engineer will engineer a specific part of a home, like a porch, and then another area requires engineering because of its proximity to the original feature.

“There might be three or four different places on a house that needs engineering,” he said, “because it isn’t able to comply with the constrictive requirements of the code. ... Without knowing details, I can’t respond.” 

Other options for inspection

There was some discussion regarding the city hiring its own building official, of which council members Dan Collison and Jim Gordon spoke in favor, noting costs between hiring and contracting were comparable.

Although Johnson was in favor of hiring an in-house building official, he said there has been difficulty in the past being able to find an official with experience for what the city could afford. It was also noted that during an off-season, there is not enough work to keep a building official busy.

Qualle reiterated that out of the permits reviewed, all were back in eight to 10 days, and small projects like decks were being approved within two days. 

In wrapping up that portion of the meeting, Lundeen emphasized the city’s seriousness about fixing the issues it is having with MNSPECT. 

“Do you understand the severity of what’s going on here?” he asked Qualle.

“I understand you are quite concerned, yes,” Qualle stated.

Johnson said that if builders started leaving Isanti because of MSPECT, that is a huge problem, because it is taking the city’s tax base. 

“The last mayor informed me,” Qualle said, “that if those builders don’t want to build up to code, we don’t need them building in Isanti. And I’m not saying you are wrong; I’m not saying he was wrong, but that was the direction I had previously. I am not enforcing anything more than the minimum standard of Minnesota state building code.” 

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