City fails homeowners
Mayor John Delaney announces an overhaul of the Building and Zoning Division at City Hall. -- M. Jack Luedke/Staff
Home inspectors missing 40%
Friday, March 20, 1998
By John Dunbar and Steve Patterson
Times-Union staff writers At least four out of 10 homes built recently in Jacksonville have not been fully inspected by city officials responsible for assuring proper construction, an analysis of records by the Times-Union shows.
The findings, based on an examination of more than 74,000 inspection records, reflect far-reaching failures in the city's ability to enforce building codes.
The problem is substantially larger than anything City Hall had anticipated.
During a news conference yesterday, Mayor John Delaney said up to 25 percent of homes might not have been fully inspected and called the city's performance ''intolerable.'' He offered the assessment while announcing plans to hire 15 to 20 more employees for the Building and Zoning Inspection Division.
With the exception of the Sheriff's Office, the new hires will be the largest staff hike in Delaney's three years as mayor.
State laws require the city to inspect new construction as a way of protecting home buyers' health and safety. Delaney said he is ''confident'' there are no safety problems regarding uninspected homes.
However, in interviews, some homeowners said the city's failures contributed to major problems in their houses.
''We woke up in the morning and there was raw sewage in the tub, the shower, the sink, the toilet and on the floor,'' said Kathryn Wells, who bought a new home off Kernan Boulevard in 1995.
Three days after she moved in, Wells discovered her plumbing had not been connected to an adjacent sewer and was pumping sewage into her yard. The waste finally backed up through the pipes.
Records show the city never performed a final plumbing examination, in which an inspector flushes toilets and runs water through sinks. City files also show an inspector gave Wells' home a passing mark on a water and sewer examination, in which the inspector is supposed to check sewer hookups.
There have been other problems, including a broken air conditioner and a crack in Wells' kitchen floor, which laid open an exposed electrical conduit.
While the builder corrected the problems Wells had with her house, she said she was extremely disappointed by the city's performance.
The city will introduce a new system April 6 where a home or business can not be occupied until it passes a series of examinations and receives a certificate of occupancy.
That certification system is required by Florida law, which Jacksonville has violated for more than a decade.
That type of system guarantees homeowners that all required inspections are performed and passed, which hasn't been the case in the past.
For example, one home failed a framing inspection - designed to ensure walls are properly built - 15 times. It finally passed once but later failed again, and construction resumed.
Records show another home failed all three major building inspections: slab, framing and insulation. They were never reinspected.
The Times-Union found, so far, that at least 100 other homes received failing grades from inspectors but were never reinspected.
Evidence indicates Building and Zoning officials failed for years to enforce inspection laws. However, city officials had never closely monitored the agency's performance.
''The system and the reports that we had just didn't report that,'' Delaney said.
The mayor accepted full responsibility.
''Years ago, when I got into management, I learned this rule: It is always management's fault,'' Delaney said.
His estimate of the agency's lapses was itself based partly on information from the Times-Union. Public Works Director Sam Mousa said Delaney asked him how many inspections were missed a few months ago, and ''I had guessed between 20 and 25 percent.''
Mousa said that number appeared valid when, during an interview with the Times-Union this week, reporters told him about 25 percent of homes in the paper's analysis were lacking inspections needed for heating and air-conditioning systems and fireplaces. That did not include figures for missed electrical, plumbing and structural inspections.
Numbers shared with Mousa were intended for use in a weekend story.
The Times-Union's analysis is the most comprehensive attempt to audit Building and Zoning's performance. The newspaper spent several months evaluating inspection records obtained from 2,949 single-family homes. Construction on all the homes began in 1996.
The analysis, which is not complete, found at least 1,000 homes where at least one inspection was never performed.
In addition to hiring more inspectors, Delaney said Building and Zoning will create new systems to track inspectors' performance and will set up a phone hot line for complaints next week.
The mayor's plans for Building and Zoning should make the agency run better, said Arnold Tritt, executive director of the Northeast Florida Builders Association.
''It sounds like the mayor has grabbed hold of it. . . . And there's nothing unreasonable about what he's saying,'' he said.