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Safety First

By Jorge Casuso

February 2 -- When Tim McCormick was in second grade, his family’s home burned down. The water heater, it turned out, wasn’t getting enough air and blew out.

The scary incident, McCormick said, may or may not have led the Near Eastern languages major on a winding path to his current job heading the City’s Division of Building and Safety, but it drove home the importance of sticking to code.

“Maybe it had an effect,” said McCormick, a registered civil engineer who has been in charge of Building and Safety for seven years. “People say it did.”

From the addition of a water heater in a small house to the construction of a large multi-unit, mixed-use development, McCormick is the man in charge of making sure Santa Monica’s buildings are safe.

In recent years, McCormick’s staff, as well as the Planning Department as a whole, have been the target of criticism from developers frustrated by what they claim is excessive red tape and a chronic staffing shortage that delays projects and adds to their bottom line.

In fact, an audit conducted by Matrix, an outside consulting firm, found that it takes longer to receive the proper permits in Santa Monica than it does in comparable cities such as Pasadena, West Hollywood and Palo Alto.

While McCormick acknowledges there have been problems, he is optimistic things are improving. Building and Safety’s current staff of seven inspectors has been swamped during a building boom that has delayed inspections far past the division’s goal of 24 hours, McCormick said.

“Unfortunately right now we’ve had more requests than we’ve been able to accommodate,” he said. “The demand for our service has increased a lot. There are more buildings, and the types of buildings are more complex.”

Two months ago, the department was “running about one week behind” and “as much as three in the worst of times,” McCormick said.

But the delays have been shortened to “about three days” thanks to contract workers hired to help out while the division moves to fill vacancies in two of the nine budgeted positions, he said.

“The contract staff has resulted in a big improvement in turnover time,” McCormick said. “There’s a new pool of candidates we’re interviewing. We hope to have the permanent staff situation resolved by the end of February.”

In addition to counting on a full staff, McCormick hopes the City Council will boost the number of building and safety inspectors from nine to 12 when it approves a new budget this spring. “Nine isn’t working now,” he said. “We want to solve the problem.”

The delays have been a source of frustration for developers, who could lose time and money waiting for the 50 to 100 inspections it takes during a major construction project, such as the four residential buildings totaling 200 units rising behind the old Toys ‘R Us store on Fourth Street.

“Sometimes (the delays) affect your construction schedule,” McCormick said. “That has been a concern, that there haven’t been inspectors to provide prompt service.”

To speed up the process, the Planning Department provides an inspection card outlining a list of “30 to 40 steps” an applicant must take in order to pass the necessary inspections, McCormick said. “On average, people don’t pass their first inspection,” he said.

Today, many contractors lack the knowledge that union apprenticeship programs provided in the past, McCormick said.

“There’s not enough education on the part of contractors,” he said. “They learn on the job.”

While “the bigger jobs tend to be union,” it’s the smaller residential additions that require “the most intensive inspections,” McCormick said. “It’s a big portion of our work.”

On an average day, an inspector may conduct as many as 20 inspections and eight to ten inspections if the project is more complex, McCormick said. A single family home may take 20 to 30 minutes to inspect, while a large project can take 45 minutes to an hour.

Asked about complaints that his staff sometimes nit-picks minor details during inspections, adding extra time to the approval process, McCormick points to his family's water heater to illustrate the importance of following the code.

“We expect our staff to use common sense,” McCormick said. “There’s an effort to do the best we can.”

McCormick says he understands the plight of developers. While studying Near Eastern languages at UCLA, he landed a summer job in construction and decided to become a civil engineer.

McCormick then attended Cal Poly in Pomona, where he graduated with a degree in structural engineering and the ambition to start a design/ build firm. When he landed a government job to learn the permit process, “it became another career.”

Before coming to Santa Monica McCormick worked for the City of Los Angeles, first as an engineer reviewing plans, then taking on several roles, including training new building inspection officers.

His stint in LA gave him a glimpse of how Santa Monica can improve its planning process. The answer, McCormick says, is in having a clear vision articulated in “a set of objective standards anyone can follow.”

Those who chose to stick to the guidelines would gain an administrative approval without a discretionary hearing by the Planning Commission or Architectural Review Board.

“It makes more sense,” McCormick said. For developers, “time is one of the biggest factors for rate of return. If you cut nine to 12 months, they’ll seriously look at what you want for that. That’s not been available here.”

McCormick anticipates his staff will remain busy, even if the council boosts its ranks to 12.

“The economy in Santa Monica remains strong even in recessionary periods,” he said. “However, interest rates affect everyone.”

Even if the hot building market cools down, inspectors can become more proactive or take on other enforcement tasks, McCormick said.

“There are investments made in staff, and you have to carry them sometimes,” he said. “There’s a lot of work they can do.”

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