By Allen Turner
The president of the Columbus County Homebuilders Association had seven pairs of sympathetic ears but got no action from Columbus County commissioners last week when he appeared before to the board to ask them to increase salaries in the building inspections department to stem a high turnover rate and frequent vacancies among inspectors.
Bill Worley, representing the county’s builders, told commissioners that funding levels for salaries in the department has dropped from around $134,000 annually six years ago to $123,000 currently. Commissioners seemed sympathetic, especially after County Manager Mike Stephens confirmed that he has been shackled in his efforts to recruit qualified inspectors, including a permanent full time chief inspector to replace the current “temporary” department head who came to work for the county only until a permanent replacement can be hired, because of comparatively low salaries the county pays.
While commissioners generally agreed the pay situation for inspectors is problematic, later in the meeting they went ahead and adopted their new budget (see separate story elsewhere in this issue) for the upcoming fiscal year without making any adjustments in the building inspection pay scales.
Worley told commissioners that builders are having problems getting inspections done in a timely manner. “This is largely due to having unqualified inspectors and no leadership,” Worley said. “At this time inspections are scheduled based on what days of the week the inspectors are going to be in your area of the county.”
The Columbus County Building Inspections Department has a schedule posted on its web site showing that inspections are done on Mondays and Wednesdays in roughly the southern portions of the county, on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the northern half of the county, and Friday inspections are “to be determined.”
Worley said that the county currently has one inspector certified at the highest level, Level 3, and two uncertified inspectors on the payroll. “You recently hired an inspector who was a prison guard with no inspection certifications and is now going to be our inspector. You got him at a cheap salary and can train him. The problem with that is that once he has his certification he will leave for higher pay elsewhere and we will start this over and over again,” Worley said.
He gave commissioners numbers based on his own research showing that between 2006 and 2012, the county employed one Level 3 inspector at a salary of $55,000, a Level 2 inspector who earned $45,000 and a Level 1 inspector who made $34,000. From 2012-2016 the county had a Level 3 inspector it paid $53,000 and a Level 2 inspector making $42,000 and was one inspector short. Currently, the county has a Level 3 inspector who works four days a week and earns $63,000 annually and two uncertified inspectors who are paid $30,000 a year, Worley said.
The county’s current head inspector, Wayland Townsend, is retired and works only part time, traveling from Lumberton four days a week. Because the other two inspectors in his department lack certification, he has to sign off on all their work and rides with them as they go to construction jobs.
Townsend said Monday that he was hired “temporarily” until the county could find someone to take the position full time but that, thus far, the county has been unable to find someone and believes that the salary offered is the primary reason for that.
Worley told commissioners last week, “What we have is more money spent on a Level 3 inspector, less money on inspectors with no certification and less overall salaries than 12 years ago,” Worley said. “You are going to continue down the road of no leadership and no qualifications until something goes wrong and there is a lawsuit.”
Worley said that in North Carolina, most Level 1 inspectors earn $34,000 to $40,000 annually, while Level 2 inspectors make $42,000 to $55,000 a year. “Columbus County doesn’t really need a Level 3 inspector,” he said. “With the type of building going on here, we could get by with a Level 2 inspector.”
“I’ve been in the construction business for a long time,” Worley said. “Maybe I’ve been here too long, but we’re worse off now than we’ve ever been before. I hate that we’ve gotten to this point. We let some good people slip through our fingers. Something like 30 percent of the building inspection jobs across the state are open and, when you get into that situation, sometimes you have to reach a little deeper into your pocket to get people to come.”
Commissioner Ricky Bullard, himself a licensed building contractor, agreed with Worley’s remarks. “I would support raising inspectors’ salaries, but I can’t do it by myself. There have been qualified people who have talked to us but they would have to take a $4,000-5,000 pay cut to come here, and you can’t blame them for not coming.”
He continued, “Bill (Worley) was very easy on our ears tonight. This whole board has heard me whine about this issue over and over. I’d like for Mr. Stephens to explain that we have no control over who is hired. We can express our concerns but the county manager does the hiring.”
Stephens answered, “If you can find me somebody with the credentials, I’ll be glad to hire them, I’d love to have them, but I don’t have anybody in the county with the credentials.” Worley replied, “If you raise the pay, you can.” Stephens answered, “I don’t raise the pay. These guys,” gesturing toward the commissioners, “raise the pay,” Stephens said.
The county manager agreed with Worley’s assessment that the county doesn’t really need a Level 3 inspector. “I need a Level 2 with full certification,” he said. “If our main guy walked out of here tomorrow, we’d be in a world of problems. I’ve reached out to the Dept. of Insurance (which certifies and regulates inspectors), to their retirees and to the (inspectors’ professional) organization, but I can’t get anyone. I’m trying, I really am. I know you guys are frustrated, sitting there waiting on somebody to do inspections. I realize you have problems.”
Commission Chairman Amon McKenzie told Worley, “We’re in the process of taking care of the situation. We’ve asked our county manager to make it right and he’s working on it. We realize it’s a problem area. Everything you’re saying, we’ve all gotten a dose of it already and we don’t need a second dose of it tonight. The main thing is that we’re going to handle it. Give our county manager and our board time to get it on track.”
Worley replied, “I hope you can get it on track, because it’s not on track now.”
Other builders have said that the inspections department is doing the best it can with the resources it has. Joe Gore, who operates Gore’s Construction in the Chadbourn area, said over the weekend, “I’m not having any trouble right now,” said Gore, who did not attend last Monday’s meeting. “My biggest problems came awhile back when most of their inspectors quit. Until they pay their inspectors more money, they’re going to lose inspectors. I hear they are fixin’ to lose one over money now. The commissioners need to get off some more money and pay them what they’re worth.”
The Chadbourn builder continued, “Waitus Green (a former county chief building inspector who now works in the Charlotte area) would have come back. He wanted to come back home. He’s got all his certifications and from what I hear he would come back home but, if they aren’t going to pay enough money they’re going to have to put up with this B.S.”
Gore emphasized that he has no problems with current employees in the inspections office. “We work together. The fact that they’re doing half the county one day and the other half another day isn’t a problem. We work together and plan around their schedule. If I have an emergency, they work with me.”
He continued, “The only real problems I had was over a year ago when they were down to just one inspector in the office by himself and his daddy had died, so he took time off to see to his daddy’s funeral arrangements, and I don’t blame him. I’m good friends with all the inspectors, but I’ve heard about the amount of money they’re making and there’s no way I’d take that job for that kind of money and then have to put up with the kind of bull they have to put up with. I haven’t seen their pay stubs but, from what I’ve heard, I’d tell them to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
He said, “Nobody’s going to stay here for the little bit of money the county pays. It’s for certain that I wouldn’t. I know a guy who left here and now is doubling what he made in Columbus County. That’s the county’s fault. The county should pay these boys more money than what they’re paying.”
Gore added, “Going from new inspector to new inspector is just tough, and 90 percent of the problem is that our guys are not paid enough. As far as the working relationship, I have no problem with the boys in our inspections office.”