Dear Assembly Person(name) or Senator(name),
This letter is in regard to Assembly Bill A4850/ Senate Bill S3095 which allows for expedited inspections on construction sites in a required timeframe and during off hours.
Presently, per New Jersey Uniform Construction Code regulations, inspections must be carried out during normal business hours and within three business days from the time the request is made. The new proposal would allow contractors to pay a premium fee for inspections to be conducted on off hours and within 2 calendar days from when the request was made. Once opting into the expedited inspection program, they would need to pay an additional fee for each inspection for the project’s duration, not just the ones they want.
Currently, the Uniform Construction Code, which governs these aspects, already contains requirements to meet the intent of this bill. It contains language that requires municipalities to properly staff their offices to meet required inspection deadlines. The disconnect is that municipalities remove the funds from the local construction offices and apply it elsewhere rather than properly staffing the offices. This in turn creates delays in inspections. If the existing statutes were properly administered, there would be no need for the bill proposed. (see NJAC 5:23-4.17(c) attached)
As members of the Construction Code Enforcement Community, we are very concerned by this piece of legislation. After reviewing the contents, a number of flaws and inconsistencies were found. There are also a lot of unanswered questions and details that leave open areas for overcharging fees. It seems unfair that an applicant that pays for permits must now, according to this bill, pay additional fees in order to get their inspections. The original permit fees collected are intended to accomplish this without the implementation of any additional fees.
This also leaves open the possibility of discrimination. Currently, all permit applicants receive the same treatment and pay fees according to the scope of work with the project they are working on. Inspections are taken in order on a first come, first serve basis. This proposed bill would allow those in a better monetary position to obtain faster inspections and put the people who cannot afford to pay extra to the bottom of the request list. In essence, it would allow the expedited inspection applicant to continually move ahead of everyone else. If implemented, this can be construed as Malfeasance by a public official. The other question that arises with this scenario is, if a local office is struggling to meet the three-day requirement within normal operating procedures, what will happen when they must process the expedited inspection before everyone else? Where is the fairness in this?
The bill also allows an alternative to the above scenario. It has been suggested that if a local office cannot perform the inspections, then the applicant can pay an outside agency to conduct them. The problems that arise from that are numerous. First and foremost, there are only a few outside agencies in New Jersey. New agencies would need to be developed and none of the criteria for the oversight of these agencies has been provided. This also leaves open concerns for the completeness of inspections. If the agency’s inspectors are being paid per inspection, how thorough of an inspection will they conduct? Or will they just try to complete as many as they can in a given day in order to increase their monetary payments. Another possibility is that they will consistently fail inspections for minor or non-existent issues in order to return for additional fees, again increasing their monetary payments. Whereas Inspectors for a municipality have no incentive either way on the outcome of inspections and are only concerned that the minimum code requirements are met, an Inspector in a private agency has an incentive to both overlook items and/or fail inspections to obtain more money. To even monitor this would be nearly impossible if it can be done at all. This will also lead to shoddy construction prone to long term failures. The impact on the consumer will be devastating.
This bill also indicates that the municipalities must retain oversight of each project. Unfortunately, it does not indicate how that will be accomplished. It also brings to question; will the municipality be responsible for actions taken by an agency they have no control over? If something goes awry, who will be responsible? What procedures will be put in place to ensure this does not happen?
It also contains a conflict pertaining to permit fees. The beginning of the bill indicates the applicant will pay all permit fees as usual and then pay additional fees for expedited inspections. At the end of the bill, it indicates that the original permit fees are to be refunded except for portions required to monitor the project. These two areas are in direct conflict. Further, who will determine the amounts needed to monitor a project. Will it cost the same as the permit fees? More than the original permit fees? Less than the permit fees? Can the municipalities make determinations that expedited inspections are more work and therefore charge additional fees?
Within the proposed bill there is a fee listed for each expedited inspection. Remember, that once an applicant chooses up front to proceed with expedited inspections, they cannot opt out. The fee is listed as $100.00 but there is a clause that allows more to be charged. This will allow both municipalities and private agencies to have an open door on what they choose to charge without any oversight. It will also give the impression that paying for an expedited inspection will be an automatic approval. In essence, “pay to play”.
The local municipality is also required to have oversight of the project and collect and distribute monies for the private agencies. How will this be accomplished? What will the costs be? How will the services be verified? How will the project be documented? How will the municipalities be billed? How will the inspections to these agencies be awarded? Will there be a bidding process? If fees are already set, how will one agency be chosen over another?
After reading through this bill, it is apparent that it leans towards a self-serving piece of legislation that will create numerous problems. The workload for municipalities will increase, the paperwork will increase, the bookkeeping will increase, all at the expense of the permit holder.
Rather than adopting a new piece of legislation, which contains a lot of missing pieces and is ripe for corruptive issues, it would be better to just take the existing regulations and ensure they are being followed. If monies made by Construction Offices were left to properly staff them, as defined in N.J.A.C. 5:23-4.17(c), this bill would not be required or necessary.
Currently, the Office of Local Finance has sent out letters to municipalities indicating they will be checking on where the permit fees are going and also stated in that same letter that they must be used to fund the Construction offices. So, there is already help on the way, as long as they follow through. A copy of this Notice is attached.
I/we implore you to not approve this piece of legislation and to give a directive that the existing regulations be followed. This would resolve the numerous issues that are currently being experienced by the permit applicants.
I thank you for your time in reading this letter and hope that you will consider the current legislation, rather than this bill, and require the existing statutes to be administered.