Minneapolis city officials are proposing a series of changes to the city's housing inspections program.
The goal is to improve the quality of inspections and consolidate the supervision of inspections under one department, a move some firefighters say is about placing blame.
Scrutiny of the inspections has been high since a fire in April killed six people. They died in apartments that hadn't been inspected in 16 years.
Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson and the city's director of regulatory services, Rocco Forte, led an analysis of the current inspection system. Their report is critical of the fire department's role in housing inspections.
They say firefighters need better inspection training. Firefighters also need to be more aggressive in generating citations and do a better job of prioritizing inspections. For example, in some cases firefighters inspected the same properties two or three times while other buildings went uninspected.
Jackson says the problems are representative of a system that needs to be changed.
"The regret that I would have is that I didn't recognize it earlier," Jackson said. "So the program, it needed to evolve, and what I recognized I wish I would have recognized sooner."
Jackson was asked if the building on Lake Street -- the site of the fatal fire in April -- was overlooked because firefighters reinspected other properties. Jackson says he didn't know, but he did say the building was due for an inspection this summer.
Under the new proposal firefighters will still inspect both commercial and residential buildings with four or more units -- like the Lake Street building. But much of the administrative oversight of the inspections program will shift to the city's regulatory services department -- including scheduling inspections.
Rocco Forte was fire chief when the fire department began doing these kind of inspections in 2005. At the time, the fire department needed a source of revenue to prevent firefighter layoffs. Firefighters were enlisted to help reduce a large backlog of inspections, he said.
"Five years ago regulatory services had the 17-year rotation. Without the help of the fire department we would never had gotten to five [years]," Forte said. "If we don't get to five, we can't get to the tiered inspection. So there's successes here. Unfortunately, as any program changes, there's always shortcomings that have to be addressed."
The tiered inspection program mentioned by Forte is a system the city will adopt next year. The system would place properties with a history of code violations on a shorter inspection rotation than other buildings. But before that policy can be implemented, inspectors have to clear the backlog.
Some Minneapolis firefighters say they're troubled by the proposal to shift some of the administrative functions of inspections to the regulatory services department. Tim Baynard is a fire department captain who does housing inspections. He says the fire department is close to finishing the work regulatory services couldn't get done.
"I think the problem is they're trying to place the blame on something else and pushing it off to another entity because they think the fire department hasn't done it," Baynard said. "But the fire department, again, within that five or six years, we'll be caught up on all the inspections they didn't do 16 years prior."
The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed changes to the inspections system later this week.