Could Mesa’s cuts jeopardize building safety? - East Valley Tribune: News

Could Mesa’s cuts jeopardize building safety?

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Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2008 7:07 pm | Updated: 11:58 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Several Mesa employees are raising concerns over deep cuts in the city’s development services department, which they say could lower the quality of building inspections.

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Of the looming $62 million city budget cuts, this department is bearing a $10 million axe between the rest of this fiscal year and the next. It’s also losing 71.5 full-time equivalent positions, half its current staff level.

Karen Mikus, a senior city plans examiner, who does fire code inspections, and Bob Gould, a senior building plans examiner, have been vocal about their concerns to the city council.

Mikus said that the people who will remain to do fire and planning reviews, for instance, won’t have the knowledge acquired from years of experience compared to those who are being let go.

“They’re wiping us out,” Mikus said. “They’re taking everybody with expertise.”

Bob Gould, senior building plans examiner with the city, described building safety in an e-mail as “the first line of defense.”

“While we are not 'first responders’ like the police or fire departments, the building safety plan reviewers are 'first preventers.’”

City inspectors typically review structures for compliance with building and fire codes, among other responsibilities.

Both Mikus and Gould are on the list of cuts, but Mikus said she doesn’t want to be seen as a disgruntled employee, because she’s well-known enough in the state to be snapped up by another employer.

Christine Zielonka, director of the new department, said the remaining staff will be able to handle the inspections. They will be cross-trained, will be able to get additional certifications, and the city will outsource inspections, if need be, she said.

Mayor Scott Smith said at a City Council meeting Thursday that he wasn’t concerned with the city’s “ability to attract people who know the code and know the business.”

He added that the city won’t sacrifice overall protection.

City Manager Chris Brady had said earlier that the department is particularly hard hit because of the construction economy tanking.

“I won’t say we have the perfect plan, but we are facing a crisis of economics,” Brady has said. “We need to keep a smart group of people with broader responsibilities. That’s a lot more economical than specialists.”

The city is organizing a new Development and Sustainability Department, which will be the planning, building safety and code compliance departments, all combined. It’s losing a lot of specialists in the process.

Mikus said residents should be “very concerned” because “the city’s credibility will go down.”

Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh agreed earlier that the concerns are legitimate.

“These are drastic times resulting in dramatic measures, so when you take actions like this, you do incorporate some element of risk,” he said.

Scott Stookey, a senior technical staffer at the International Code Council, the entity that develops the codes cities adopt, said Mesa isn’t alone in taking this path, because of the economic crunch.

“Will it impact the quality of inspection? It could. Depends on how much is spent on training,” Stookey said.

He added that cross-training would be “a huge learning curve” for the remaining inspectors.

“It’s doable, but when you start making people generalists, something can be lost along the way.”

But Stookey said outsourcing is an option if a complex building project needs greater expertise.

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