By STEPHEN SIFF
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
AUSTINTOWN -- The Mahoning County Building Inspection Department as of mid-April had no record of ever approving occupancy of more than 100 commercial structures -- including schools, restaurants and medical offices -- renovated or constructed last year.
Until a few weeks ago, the department also had no record of approving occupancy of dozens of projects from 1999, including $214,000 bleachers in Lowellville High School's gym and the enclosure of a passageway between Boardman Center Middle School buildings that cost $36,000.
The building department has contacted both schools and issued certificates of occupancy since The Vindicator began reviewing department records April 13.
What official said: In the majority of cases where a certificate of occupancy was missing, it was because the contractor didn't call for a final inspection of his work, said Don Hall, the county's chief building official.
"It is possible that they got the final inspection from us, but everybody else didn't sign off. Or, it could be that they didn't get the final from us," he said.
The Ohio Administrative Code requires that commercial and public buildings, and apartment houses with more than three units, get a certificate of occupancy either from a local building department or directly from the Department of Commerce before they are used.
"It is a statewide rule," said Bill Teets, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Commerce. "There are no exceptions."
A certificate of occupancy is signed by the electrical, plumbing, fire, building and heating inspectors, indicating that they saw that work was done in compliance with Ohio's building codes.
These codes govern everything from the size of support beams to requirements for handrails and sprinklers.
In Mahoning County, only the building and heating inspectors work for the building inspection department. But Hall provides the final signature on certificates of occupancy issued under the department's jurisdiction, which includes all the county except Youngstown, Campbell and Beloit.
What remained: As of April 13, the Mahoning County Building Inspection Department had not issued certificates of occupancy for at least 50 completed commercial construction projects from 1999, and as many as 131 projects from 2000, for which they say the certificates are required.
That's about 17 percent of completed 1999 construction and as much as 43 percent of 2000 construction, although some of the 2000 buildings are not finished.
"You are always going to find something if you keep looking," Hall said, referring to The Vindicator's examination of his department's records. "That is why we send the adjudication orders when we find them."
The department has been playing catch-up since April 13. Adjudication orders have been mailed to 39 building owners, warning them to get certificates of occupancy for construction done two years ago or face legal action. As of Wednesday, a dozen had complied.
George Donie, business manager for Boardman schools, said he received a letter April 23 regarding doors added to a passageway between middle school buildings that had been completed in time for the 1999-2000 school year.
"We called the contractor and he said he had taken out the permit to do the work," Donie said. "I'm guessing he failed to follow up to have it inspected. I'm not sure."
Here's the procedure: When a building owner contacts him about one of the letters of adjudication, Hall said he dispatches an inspector to make sure the construction complies with building codes.
Before inspectors recently examined Lowellville High School's bleachers, in use since the 1999-2000 school year, as well as $143,000 kitchen hoods built at the same time, neither had been inspected by his department, Hall said.
Schools Superintendent Richard Buchenic declined to discuss the matter in detail.
"I had the certificates here. I sent them to Don Hall. I'm not answering any more questions," Buchenic said.
The building department has been under scrutiny before. In September, it came under fire when The Vindicator reported that many new homes built under its jurisdiction in 1999 had not been fully inspected.
A review by the newspaper showed that 80 percent of homes built that year did not have all four structural inspections required by the department.
County commissioners responded by demanding that the department be brought up to speed.
"There was sort of a general outline of what was necessary to be done, but there was a common theme that it needed to be more consumer based," said Gary Kubic, the county administrator.
Suggestions included hiring more inspectors, extending their work hours and fining contractors who didn't get inspections.
Computer use: Commissioners also pressed Hall to computerize records, so compliance could be tracked more easily.
Five months later, on March 15, Hall was suspended for not implementing changes at the department, including a new computer system, fast enough.
Hall said the department is now "a couple more months" from being fully computerized.
"The computers will make a big difference," said Hall, whose desk last week was covered with stacks of pink building permits from the residential files.
He said he had been sorting through them to turn up 1999 commercial permits and inspection records that his staff couldn't find.
Before the building department could send out those adjudication letters for 1999 construction, the department had to hunt down each building permit.
Hall said the commercial building inspector, Jeff Uroseva, had to visit each property to make sure construction was finished.
In 1999, the department issued 473 building permits for commercial construction and renovation. According to department records, 185 of these permits were for signs, window replacements and new roofs -- things for which Hall says certificates of occupancy are not required.
Of the remaining 288 projects, 219 actually had certificates of occupancy April 13. All but three of those without certificates of occupancy have now been visited by Uroseva, either for inspection or to lay the groundwork for a letter of adjudication.
"The Building Inspection Department has signed Certificate of Occupancy or sent Adjudication Letters to all where required except for 3 of the 473 commercial permit holders. This is 0.6 percent, which will continue to decrease as our inspectors are still trying to determine the status of the occupancy of these 3 locations," Hall wrote to The Vindicator on May 3.
"On some, the contractors or owners have not been found to gain entrance to the structure. However we continue to work on these as we always have. Many of the ones that received adjudication orders continue to call in for inspections before their 30-day grace period, which is required by law, is up."
The inspector found that six of the buildings missing certificates of occupancy were still under construction. Construction had never begun at two others, was canceled at three, and one store had moved to another location, according to department records.
Permit review: Hall said the department also has begun the process of reviewing 2000 permits. That year, 312 out of 494 permit holders were required to get certificates of occupancy. So far, 174 have.
Of the remaining 138, 10 have been flagged to get warning letters. As of April 24, the department had not compiled records to indicate if work on all but seven of the other 128 had been started, finished or abandoned.
Hall said there has been one previous review of certificate of occupancy records since he took over the department in 1998. "Before that, the records were all screwed up," he said.
Beginning at the end of 2000, letters of adjudication were mailed for some of the same 1999 projects being dealt with now.
On April 20, Hall said he did not know which, or how many, because the clerk who took care of it was "not organized." He has subsequently said the records have been located.
That clerk is now on administrative leave. Those letters, like the ones being sent out now, gave the building permit holder 30 days to get a certificate of occupancy or face a court date.
Those cases in which permit holders did not comply were forwarded to the building department's lawyer, Don Duda Jr., an assistant county prosecutor.
Hall said that after sitting on files for as long as six months, Duda sent them back to the building inspection department a few weeks ago.
Duda declined to talk about the situation in detail, citing attorney-client privilege, but Hall said he was told the letters of adjudication were invalid.
The reason: Someone in the office had decided to save on postage and sent the letters regular, not registered, mail, he said.