By Dan Guers
The beauty of the Uniform Construction Code (UCC) lies within its name: “uniform.”
All new and renovated homes and commercial structures must provide the same minimum standards of safety, ensuring that they are suitable for occupancy, and not destined to become the scene of collapsed floorboards, cracked drywall, faulty wiring, leaky roofs, or other disasters waiting to happen.
In early April, the state House voted 114-84 to approve a bill sponsored by Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, that, like a similar Senate proposal, sponsored by Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, threatens to strip away neutrality and local control in the enforcement of building codes and ultimately cost taxpayers more and jeopardize public safety.
Both bills are now before the Senate Labor & Industry Committee.
Before we look at what these bills would do, let’s examine the current law. In 1999, the Legislature enacted the UCC to ensure that every building – whether new or altered, residential or commercial — is safe for occupancy.
While municipalities are permitted to hire their own building code enforcement agents, they also have the power to contract with third-party agencies or opt out and let the state Department of Labor and Industry handle inspections of commercial construction.
Third-party agencies have become an effective and popular way to enforce the UCC. About 60 percent of municipalities overseeing inspections contract with one third-party agency, which they found results in uniform administration and enforcement of the UCC at a reasonable cost. The existing system is especially helpful for boroughs and small rural townships with little development.
Supporters of Heffley’s House bill and Laughlin’s companion Senate proposal say the intent behind requiring two or more third-party agencies is to fix local problems that have occurred in their hometown districts with code enforcement officials.
The flaw in this thinking is that municipalities can already fire a third-party agency immediately in the event of misconduct or failure to provide adequate services. Moreover, nothing prevents a municipality from hiring multiple third-party agencies presently or joining with an adjacent township or borough to enforce the UCC.
A mandate to do so is not needed.
Why throw out the entire system, which is working well, because of fears about some rogue inspectors?
Mandating the use of multiple third-party agencies will make it harder for municipalities to monitor the work, bring additional liability for local governments, and move away from fair and uniform enforcement.
It was that concern that led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2009 to rule municipalities could designate one entity to handle inspections. “Safety would be undermined by a system that allows builders to handpick inspectors,’’ the court found in Allegheny Inspection Service Inc. v. North Union Township K2.
Forcing municipalities to provide two more choices could lead to builders looking to see which offers the “easier’’ inspector.
Moreover, to place the “competition” argument in context, state law does not require townships and boroughs to have multiple solicitors, trash collectors, cable companies, engineers, and sewage enforcement officers, to name just a few, so why building inspectors?
Some municipalities do indeed have more than one inspector, and that’s acceptable and legal if it works for them … but it should not be mandated. That mandates defeats the commitment to “local control” that has been the bedrock of our system of government.
For smaller townships and boroughs, it could be challenging to control multiple third-party agencies and ensure all projects have permits in place. More man-hours will be necessary to manage the additional workload. To compensate for the additional hours, increased administrative fees on permitting will result. Ultimately, this cost will be passed on to, and be paid by, the property owner.
Enforcement would not be uniform or consistent.
These bills put the nails in the coffins of a system that is working. They are a solution in search of a problem – and represent a “solution” offered, when other solutions already exist. If enacted, municipalities may be forced to opt out and delegate duties to the state, or hire their own officials, which could increase fees and taxes.
If the goal of the proposed legislation is to curb a rogue building inspector, the current language fails to accomplish that objective.
While the legislation does call for tracking complaints, municipalities who are dissatisfied with their appointed agency already have the means to act.
Municipalities are always seeking to offer better service at a lower cost. This new legislation is a move in the wrong direction and could make our inspection process more cumbersome, more costly, and less safe.
Dan Guers was the manager of Akron Borough for 20 years and former vice president and secretary of the Lancaster County Boroughs Association. He resides in Ephrata Township, Lancaster County.