Short-staffed town looks to contract for building inspections

Just months after Riverhead Town officials eliminated a town fire marshal position due to budgetary concerns and a building inspector reduced his hours, the Town Board has found itself “trying out” a private company to do fire and building inspection work.

At a Town Board work session last Thursday, officials heard a pitch from Bruce Johnson, the director of fire services activities for the International Code Council a membership association, about what it could provide the town by way of such inspections, which had previoously been handled by in-house building inspectors and fire marshals.

Town officials and Mr. Johnson agreed it would not be cost effective to hire ICC to conduct routine building projections, but that it could benefit the town to hire the company to review bigger projects, such as the proposed Lowe’s store being built in the former Suffolk Life building on Route 58.

ICC’s fees are based on construction costs, Mr. Johnson explained. For example, a $3 million project would cost $3,600, and anything above that $3 million would pay at a lesser rate. “I think our expertise is in those large, complicated buildings because we have a staff, we have structural engineers, we have architects and fire protection engineers. We have a whole diverse staff with a lot of expertise,” he said.

“So for routine projects like new stores at Tanger, it would be business as usual, but for large things like Lowe’s or Costco or Wal-Mart, this might be a good idea,” Supervisor Sean Walter said in response, referring to three large projects planned for Route 58 in Riverhead.

Mr. Walter said he wants to be able to free up building and fire inspectors so they can do more inspections.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who brought the idea of hiring ICC to the board, suggested the town be taken out of the mix altogether and have developers deal strictly with ICC. But Mr. Johnson said such an arrangement would be impossible since the town would still officially be the permitting agency.

Board members agreed to try hiring ICC on a pilot basis, and said they may do so on the Lowe’s project.
Mr. Johnson was the town’s chief fire marshal from 1998 to 2007.

The ICC is a membership association dedicated to building safety and fire prevention and develops many of the state codes in these areas.

As part of its 2011 budget, which was approved in November, the Town Board cut the fire marshal position held by Craig Zitek, despite protests from local fire departments. That cut left the town with two fire marshals, which local firefighters feel is not enough. The town building department also saw one building inspector retire as a full-time employee and come back part-time. Building department coordinator Leroy Barnes is also considering retirement.

Fire Marshal Scott Davonski said the loss of Mr. Zitek has hurt his department in terms of reviewing existing buildings. He said reviewing large commercial projects also is very time consuming.

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