Marco Island Building Department overworked, understaffed one year after Hurricane Irma

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island, Fla. Sunday, September 10, 2017.

One year after Hurricane Irma made landfall over Marco Island, the storm’s impact is still felt around the city.

If the blue tarps and unfinished roofs weren’t enough of an indicator, one of the chief concerns voiced to the City Council revolves around permitting to get homes fixed and whole again.

Delays in the Building Department, however, aren’t for a lack of effort and with the department inundated with requests, it’s a lack of resources that have played a contributory factor.

“Aside from our minimal staffing levels, we had four vacant positions prior to when the Hurricane Irma workload hit us,” Chief Building Official Raul Perez wrote in his latest report to the City Council.

“We had to not only handle the increased workload but also fill these positions as soon as we could. This shortage of staff caused our plans examiner and building official to perform inspections on an almost daily basis, our permitting manager and permit clerk supervisor to process permits after hours and on weekends all while still carrying out their other duties. All our staff stepped up to the plate and took on as much as they could, working an inordinate amount of overtime as mentioned in our report at the last council meeting, but the surge in workload has been (insurmountable).”

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Compared to permitting numbers last year, the workload in the Building Department has surged and continues to increase. 

From Oct. 1, 2017, to July 31, 2018, 6,864 permits have been issued and 24,437 inspections have been performed. In July, an all-time high of 3,723 inspections was performed, dwarfing the 1,816 inspections during the same month last year.

Hurricane Irma, which made landfall on Marco Island on Sept. 10, 2017, reshaped Tigertail Beach, creating an inlet from the lagoon to the Gulf of Mexico.

By comparison, the city of Naples, which is of similar physical size as Marco Island, experienced about a 15 percent increase in workload as a result of the hurricane but it’s building staff is almost twice as large as Marco Island. Last year, Naples issued 5,175 permits compared to 6,497 by Marco Island.

Although the city has added some temp staffing to deal with the increased workload, hiring problems before and after the storm highlight other issues in the city: adequate compensation and staffing levels.

Not only was Marco Island short-staffed before the hurricane, it has seen turnover in several positions over the past year.

Part of the issue hampering the ability to recruit and retain quality candidates is the ability to offer a comparable salary.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen at the Marco Eagle office on Monday, September 11, 2017 in Marco Island, Fla.

 “We conducted several interviews and made offers to candidates for positions that were vacant,” Perez said. “However, many fell through due to our pay offers. When comparing our pay to other neighboring municipalities, our offers are well below the average rate, and therefore were not competitive enough to seal the deal, even though we increased our pay ranges from what they were. In this difficult time where there is an overwhelming demand for building department staff throughout Florida, we are not competitive enough to be a viable option to these candidates and therefore, they end up looking elsewhere.”

Compared to the city of Naples, the salary of a Marco Island city inspector is 12.67 percent less while plan examiners earn 33.2 percent less. The average salary for permit clerks is also 10.28 percent less.

The need to improve employee compensation has not gone unnoticed by some members of the City Councilor.

Damage in the community of Goodland,, near Marco Island after Hurricane Irma.  Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

In noting that the city had starved itself of resources, Councilor Howard Reed recently supported not setting millage at the roll-back rate and using some of the funds towards improving employee compensation.

Although no action was taken, Councilor Bob Brown suggested at the same meeting that all city employees should receive a 10 percent raise.

While the Building Department has asked the Council for its approval and support to increase staffing levels and resources, it has also begun a review of its fees, which are among the lowest in the region, to help with recruiting and retaining its workforce.

Council actions

Although staffing remains an issue, the City Council has taken recent steps to respond to some concerns from the community.

Last month, the City Council approved a moratorium for allowing construction work on Sundays until the end of the year after several complaints were made by Moore Roofing during its July 16 meeting.

The complaints, which covered waiving inspections and responsiveness of staff, sought to aid contractors and homeowners with speeding up work. Many of the complaints, however, were refuted in a staff report two weeks later.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island, Fla. Sunday, September 10, 2017.

While the Council approved the moratorium, Perez informed the Council that all of the inspections the city performed were required by the state and amendments to state statutes are only permitted if the requirements are more stringent.

“In my opinion, waiving the in-progress inspection would not only violate state statutes, but it would do a disservice to the community,” Perez wrote. “Just knowing that their work will be inspected causes contractors to follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions. We run into improperly installed roofs on a regular basis. I’d hate to see what the outcome would be if contractors work is let go, uninspected.”

With many homes still requiring work, the Council also approved an extension of its fee waiver for specific single-family home permits.

The fee waiver is for reroofing, screen enclosure, fencing, seawall and solar panel permits until March 10, 2019.

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