Fairfax Worked Quietly to Repair Inspection Rating

Fairfax housing inspector Larry Vannoy points out an opening in an interior garage wall that must be sealed to prevent any possible fires from traveling.
Fairfax housing inspector Larry Vannoy points out an opening in an interior garage wall that must be sealed to prevent any possible fires from traveling. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fairfax County's residential building inspectors carry workloads that exceed their ability to do their jobs competently, according to a firm that evaluates government inspection programs for insurance companies.

The Insurance Services Office, a New Jersey company used by underwriters to help set proposed rates for homeowner policies, cited short staffing as one of several reasons that it reduced its rating of the county's home inspections program last year -- a setback that Fairfax officials did not publicly disclose for 11 months.

The company's findings do more than raise questions about the county's building inspection program. They shed light on the way Fairfax officials, protective of the county's national reputation for efficient, well-managed delivery of services, deal with unwelcome news.

Cuts in inspector training, failure to use proper checklists and inadequate supervision of staff workers who review building plans also contributed to the downgrading from a 3 to a 4 (on a scale of 1 to 10). The firm evaluates building and fire code enforcement in more than 7,700 communities.

If the rating holds, it would mean that owners of new homes in the county could see higher property insurance premiums. But Fairfax officials said last week that they corrected many of the deficiencies during the one-year "get well" period that the Insurance Services Office grants before it reports its findings to insurers. Mike Waters, the company's vice president, said the former rating will probably be restored within 60 days.

Although the company informed Fairfax of the rating reduction May 18, 2006, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin did not disclose it publicly until The Washington Post made inquiries last month.

Griffin said Friday his understanding was that the county had not been downgraded and that what it had received was only an initial assessment. "The county is constantly being evaluated or reviewed by a variety of entities for purposes of maintaining certification, ratings or funding," Griffin said. "This particular evaluation was in progress . . . and therefore not considered an issue to flag to the supervisors."

Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said the county staff should have been more forthcoming. "We're supposed to be given the information we need to be a policy body, and part of that is knowing when things are broken," he said.

All new buildings in the county are supposed to be scrutinized multiple times before they can be occupied. A single-family home can require more than 15 inspections of its electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural systems during construction, taking anywhere from five minutes to more than an hour each. If problems are discovered, return visits can increase that number.

Insurance Services Office's study found that Fairfax building inspectors average 36 reviews a day -- more than three times the number the firm said "can be competently conducted," which is 10.

On May 4, when first asked about the rating company's findings, Ray Pylant, who runs the county's inspections program, said they were misleading because they did not reflect multiple inspections performed in one location over a relatively short period of time, such as in an apartment house or townhouse development.

"You can generate some fairly big numbers because you're going through each one in a matter of minutes," he said. "In my opinion, they misanalyzed this."

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