Are private inspectors the answer?

Published: 11/15/2007 9:46 PM

In the early 1990s, north suburban Grayslake was home to just 7,388 people.

Fast forward 17 years, and the suburb has exploded with 5,000 new homes, a lively business district and an up-to-date village hall.

The population today is a whopping 20,330.

Grayslake officials saw the boom coming and they didn't worry about how their lone building inspector could possibly make sure all those new homes and businesses were safe and sound.

They simply decided to contract out the entire inspection process to a private company.

"This is the way we decided to approach growth," said Mike Ellis, Grayslake's village manager, as he sat in the new village board room lined with dark wood accents.

Rush to Inspect

In deciding to use private contractors for all its inspections, Grayslake officials took a measured gamble.

They gave up direct oversight of a crucial municipal function and that safeguard for home buyers in exchange for landing a flexible work force they would have to pay only when inspections were needed.

Under the village's private inspection contract, Wisconsin-based Independent Inspections, sends out inspectors to construction sites and handles most of the paperwork for permits.

In return, Grayslake pays a per-inspection tab tied to the permit fee charged to builders.

The arrangement means village officials should have enough money to cover the number of inspections needed for new homes or businesses and remodeling projects. Plus, when fewer inspections are needed, as is the case in today's slumping construction market, village officials don't have to lay off workers or keep paying them to do less work.

"It is strictly demand-driven," Ellis said.

Yet Grayslake's building commissioner doesn't see each inspector leave in the morning and come back in the afternoon. He doesn't train them or directly monitor their work. He doesn't even always know what inspections are being done or where or how much time is spent on them.

Ellis insists the impact of the loss of oversight is minor.

"We find contractors to be extremely responsive because they have a built-in reason to be," he said. "They want to do it once, do it right, get their money and move on to the next job."

Ellis said his building commissioner keeps an eye on the inspectors through random spot checks to ensure contractors are not trying to gain more profit by rushing inspections.

He also argues the village could not guarantee perfect work by inspectors on the public payroll any more than it can the work of contract inspectors.

"People will make mistakes," he said. "It doesn't matter whether they are an employee or not."

Regardless, Grayslake officials said they could not provide the Daily Herald and ABC 7's I-Team information on how many inspections the contractor performed or how many hours its inspectors worked. They said such information was not provided by the company to the village and is not part of their contract.

An analysis of other growing suburbs found average workloads for inspectors that sometimes reach as high as one inspection every 34 minutes -- a finding some experts say shows inspectors are too overworked to do a thorough job.

Contracting out inspections is not entirely unusual these days. Independent Inspections contracts with 12 other suburban towns, including Green Oaks, Volo and Lakemoor. Several suburbs also have backup contracts that allow building commissioners to call on a private inspector when things get busy. But contracting out an entire department is still an exception to the rule.

Experts the Daily Herald and ABC 7 talked to on the matter said it is difficult to say whether private inspectors are likely to be more reliable or less overworked than those on the public payroll.

"It is probably economically a smart move for (towns) when they have a boom," said Steve Daggers, a spokesman for the International Code Council, which develops building codes. "I don't think it is important whether you hire your own inspector or hire the job out. What is important is that you get someone who can do the job and do it properly."