Request for 12 new building code officials, inspectors passes planning committee

Christopher Whan / Global News

The city of Ottawa‘s planning committee has voted in favour of bolstering the number of officials and inspectors responsible for making sure Ottawa’s new buildings are up to snuff, a move staff and councillors hope will improve deteriorating performance levels at the understaffed and overworked building code services branch.

The number of employees in that branch has remained static since 2012, even though the number of building permit applications, the number of annual inspections and the “complexity” of provincial laws and new builds have increased significantly in recent years, according to a report written by Frank Bidin, the city’s chief building official.

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In a report submitted to the planning committee ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Bidin wrote that the building code services branch has “experienced significant and ongoing challenges in meeting its legislated duties” and asked councillors on the committee to approve the creation of 12 new full-time positions to address the branch’s staff shortage.

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Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais told Global News he’s received a number of complaints in recent months from residents in his ward – particularly in Orléans, where a lot of new subdivisions are cropping up – about building code violations in new homes that weren’t caught by the city’s inspectors. Blais has been vocal about addressing the building code staff shortage and said after the committee meeting he’s pleased the wheels are now in motion.

“Having those extra bodies and that extra expertise I think is important to give people confidence that their homes are built to the standard that they expect them to be built to,” said Blais, a two-term councillor who is running for re-election this fall.

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Stephen Willis, the city’s general manager of planning infrastructure and economic development, told councillors that “a big uptick” in development and construction activity in Ottawa over the last three years is a major reason why building code staff have been slammed with work and unable to complete some of it in a timely manner.

Bidin’s report noted that from 2015 to 2017, the number of building permit applications increased by 25 per cent, but staff’s success in reviewing those permit applications by provincially mandated deadlines tanked.

“From 2015 to 2017, the percentage of applications meeting legislated timelines dropped from 90 (per cent) to 64 (per cent),” the report said.

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Bidin’s report also notes that “significant changes” to Ontario’s Building Code Act in the last four years – regarding environmental protection and enhanced fires safety, among other things – have “imposed new requirements on development.” This, in turn, has increased the consultation and time that building code staff need to “review, confirm and approve applications.”

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But the report also underlines the impact that unchanged staff numbers have had on the building code branch, noting employees are “working overtime on a regular basis.”

“This is an additional pressure to the branch and is not sustainable over the long term,” Bidin wrote.

The addition of a dozen full-time employees in the building code branch must still be approved by Ottawa city council.

Those 12 new salaries come with a price tag of $1 million, the report noted. If council approves the extra staff, the cost will be covered with money taken from the branch’s reserve fund, according to the report.

Finding qualified candidates for building code jobs isn’t easy, city says

Blais told Global News after Tuesday’s committee meeting he still wonders why the branch’s request for new personnel didn’t come sooner.

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Financially, the building code branch is completely self-sustaining; 100 per cent of its operations, including salaries, are funded by revenues from building permits, not taxpayer dollars. The branch stores away unused cash in a “revenue stabilization reserve” fund so it’s not left destitute if it experiences a downturn.

At the end of 2017, that reserve fund had a balance of $21.1 million, according to Bidin’s report. Given this, Blais said he doesn’t understand why the city didn’t act sooner if building code officials have been drowning in work and struggling to keep up for some time.

“My interpretation is that they had the money in the reserve account, they could have hired inspectors… they chose not to,” the east-end councillor said.

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Willis told councillors the planning department regularly reviews the building code branch’s operations, including staff levels. But even then, Bidin said filling vacant positions is often challenging.

He said the pool of qualified candidates who have the right skills and regulatory experience to fill these jobs isn’t large and there is currently a provincewide shortage.

The building code branch currently employs about 176 full-time staff and regularly runs competitions to fill vacancies that come up when employees retire or move on, Bidin told Global News after the meeting. The branch will typically look for candidates internally first; if that search is unsuccessful, a job competition is opened to external candidates, he explained.

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This year, Bidin said the branch has run roughly eight competitions to try to fill 22 different positions. He told councillors the branch is still trying to fill eight vacancies, separate from the 12 new positions it’s requesting.

Willis and Bidin said the building code branch does work with post-secondary schools, like Ottawa’s Algonquin College, to ensure enough people are being trained to enter this line of work.