Inspection Lite

Current and former city workers say a college program is hurting oversight of public projects.
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Posted October 10, 2007 by Peter Gorman in News

The grades are in on the first year of a plan to send Fort Worth construction inspectors to school for a mandatory certification program, and they don’t look good. Since the program’s inception last fall, according to insiders, more than 20 percent of the city’s inspectors have left. And many of those still there say their work is suffering.

The certification program, which forces even veteran inspectors, on pain of firing, to take at least two or three college classes a semester for up to four years — while working full-time for the city — has caused quite a shakeup in the engineering department. Of 63 inspectors who were working when the program began last year, 13 either retired or left the department, and one was fired for refusing to go to school. Five rookies were added to the roster, six slots are waiting to be filled, and three jobs have vanished, leaving the city with 54 inspectors currently.

The inspector certification program was designed by Doug Rademaker, director of the engineering department, and his staff in conjunction with Tarrant County College. It requires construction inspectors, regardless of their level of experience, to take 24 college courses — 69 credit hours — over a maximum four-year period. Senior inspectors get an extra year to take an additional seven courses; supervisors have to take 15 more, within an extra two years.“You’ve got guys exhausted, and their work can’t be up to par, and then you’ve got other guys doing homework in the office when they should be out in the field,” said one inspector who is still taking classes. (All current inspectors interviewed for this story asked not to be named.) “So I don’t think the program is helping anything related to actual field inspections of construction work, which is what we’re supposed to be doing. But you know, you either do it or you’re fired. Simple.”

Rademaker would not speak directly to Fort Worth Weekly for this story, but relayed answers through Cecilia Jacobs, a city public information officer. She acknowledged that 14 people have left the department in the past year, but said only 10 of those departures could be attributed to the demands of the school program. Those same inspectors said they’re convinced that the loss of veteran colleagues is at least partly responsible for another city office taking a chunk of its inspecting work away from the engineering department. The transportation and public works department recently contracted out the inspection work on street maintenance projects to a private company for about $1 million. Rademaker’s boss, Assistant City Manager Marc Ott, said he wasn’t aware of an exodus of veteran people from the inspector ranks. “From everything Mr. Rademaker tells me, the program is going very well. I know there have been a few people who retired, but I didn’t know so many had left,” he said. “I’m sure Mr. Rademaker will brief me on that when we have our next meeting.”

Ott said he doubts there is any connection between the loss of inspectors and the decision to move street maintenance inspections to a private company. The transportation and public works director “thought it would be a good idea to bring in some managed competition,” Ott said. “It’s a good way to evaluate the quality of the work your people are doing and the cost-effectiveness of the city inspectors.” But a longtime inspector who’s still with the city said he sees the change as “a direct result of the school [workload] forcing so many inspectors out. We’re just too overloaded these days.” On his own crew, he said, five inspectors out of 12 have left, “and they haven’t been replaced yet. So I’ve got seven projects to inspect while I should only have four. “We’re trying to make sure the roads don’t suffer,” he said. “We’re going out there and doing our job, but it’s tearing us apart. None of us feel we’re able to give 100 percent anymore. We look at it like we can spend half a day on the job and half a day on homework. And taxpayers are paying us overtime to go to school while the school is costing us work hours. You’d think the public would be all over the city council for this.”

Jacobs said Rademaker told her that, “Overall, the construction inspection certification program has proved rewarding for employees and effective for handling city projects.” She said the program is improving inspectors’ skills and will “create a reliable succession plan” for the construction services division in Rademaker’s department. That’s hogwash, said one veteran former inspector, who also asked not to be named. “Common sense tells you that having 25 percent of your workforce leave to be replaced by rookies is going to be reflected in the quality of the work they deliver.” He stayed with the program for several months but said that the schoolwork eventually overwhelmed him. “I was already working about 60 to 65 hours a week because of the tremendous housing boom in Fort Worth, and then having to go to school and do homework … I just had no home life. I could never see my grandkids, and it was just ruining my marriage.”

He believes the demands of the program are raising serious questions about its impact on the quality of inspection work. Most contractors are honorable, he said, but others, including some of the largest contractors in Fort Worth, “you really have to watch. And since we already had a big workload, putting school and homework on top of that cuts into the time we could spend inspecting. And when that gets cut, the work goes downhill.” The former city employee said that, while attending the required classes, he oversaw inspection work on the 900-foot-long Double Eagle Boulevard bridge, which spans Harriet Creek and part of a golf course. “I broke my back to make sure that was inspected properly, and it was,” he said. “But I was so exhausted you wouldn’t believe it. And if an inspector isn’t doing his work all the way, if he’s too tired, the taxpayers get poor drainage systems, poor quality streets, water lines that don’t last as long as they should.” After leaving Fort Worth’s ranks, he got an inspection job with a nearby city. There, too, he is getting additional training — but in a program that makes more sense to him. Classes take place during the workday; when they’re done, he will have state licenses in both water and sewer line inspection. “Those are things you use on the job and then take with you,” he said. “The Fort Worth program just gives you an inspection certificate that’s meaningless outside of the Fort Worth Engineering Department.”

Randy Danford is the former Fort Worth inspector who was fired for refusing to take the classes. “I told Mr. Rademaker, verbally and in a written letter, that I couldn’t do the school because my wife’s in poor health and needs me home nights, but he didn’t give a damn about her health,” Danford said. “He never even once asked to see my wife’s medical records. He just wanted a sacrificial lamb to set an example that he meant business, and so I was fired for insubordination.”
Danford, who had 12 years’ experience, found a new job he loves, with Southlake. But he stays in touch with some of his former colleagues in Fort Worth. “The guys are just being beaten down by the workloads they’re carrying. And the city is suffering. When inspectors are not out there keeping contractors honest, well, some will cut corners every time you turn your head. And that leads to roads sinking and problems for drivers.”

Danford isn’t bitter, but he is disappointed. “Starting over at my age, nearly 60 — that’s tough. Still, I couldn’t do the school and take care of my wife. … And as a result of the city deciding there would be no exceptions for any reason to the school, well, they lost a lot of years of experience and a guy with a good reputation when they lost me.” The loss of Danford is just part of that equation, said another inspector still working for the city. “We lost more than 150 years of experience with all those guys leaving. How do you replace that? “Want to know what I really feel about this school business? It’s a fiasco, and everybody knows it,” he said. “This used to be the best job I ever had. When I was hired I came here to do a job, and I did it real well, and now I’m just going to school long enough to retire and get my pension. Ain’t that a shame?”

 


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