Front Royal discusses rental property inspections program

By Alex Bridges

Front Royal may revive inspections for rental properties, but the cost may outweigh the benefits, officials warned.

Town Council broached the subject during a discussion Monday about whether Front Royal should create a building inspections office.

Council had asked staff to provide information on how other municipalities handle building inspections, how much of the cost they can recover through fees, and if the programs also conduct plan reviews.

Director of Planning and Zoning Jeremy Camp explained that the amount the town could recover through inspections largely would depend on fees charged in the program.

Preliminary estimates put the cost of starting a program in Front Royal at $133,000 the first year, and $100,000 thereafter. The estimate does not include property maintenance and assumes the town would hire one full-time and one part-time employee to handle plan reviews and inspections.

Camp provided comparisons of some municipalities that operate independent inspections programs. Warren County operates a building inspections program with a budget of $443,191. Data shows the county recovers approximately 56 percent of the cost to run the program.

By comparison, Blacksburg runs an inspections program on a budget of $392,000 and recovers 99 percent of the cost.

Winchester runs an inspections program on a budget of $489,700 and recovers 56 percent of the cost, according to Camp’s information. Winchester’s program includes property maintenance with a staff of five inspectors.

Some small towns save money by contracting inspection services to private firms, Camp said.

Town Manager Steven Burke told council that several private companies in the area provide inspection services. Warren County contracts with a private to firm handle electrical inspections, he said.

Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker asked Camp if the town reinstated its rental inspection program and how that would affect the numbers he provided. Camp explained that Winchester’s rental inspection program divides the city into five sectors with one inspector each. Front Royal would need one additional full-time employee to handle maintenance inspection, Camp suggested.

Burke noted, “Unless council determines that we become more aggressive with fines for that, it would be very difficult to do cost-recovery for a property maintenance program.”

Councilman Eugene R. Tewalt recalled the town’s rental inspection program that he headed up in the 1980s recovered almost none of the cost.

Camp told council the town’s code enforcement officer could train to conduct maintenance inspections. But Camp advised that maintenance inspections would be a full-time job.

The town’s previous maintenance inspection program required owners of rental property to have their buildings inspected before they could sign on new tenants, Councilman Hollis L. Tharpe said.

Parker suggested that Front Royal pursue its own inspections program and bring back the town’s property maintenance code. Parker indicated that approximately 70 percent of Front Royal’s residential properties are rentals.

“I think we owe it to the citizens and, with a rental rate like that and knowing the conditions of some properties, I think we need to seriously think of bringing this back and that’s probably going to help fund it,” Parker said.

Councilman Bret W. Hrbek, who had asked that council look at the issue, said he favored further discussion about an inspections program.

The town also may tap into the benefits of a software program under consideration by Warren County leaders for the building inspections and planning department.

At the beginning of the work session, council saw a presentation by a representative of EnerGov regarding the software that the county may buy to streamline its building inspections and planning processes. Burke advised that the software also includes components for property maintenance.

Mayor Timothy W. Darr said he thought that the rental program should never have been done away with.

“You can definitely see the condition of some of the rental properties, not all of the rental properties, but some of the properties in town that are left with no inspection,” he said.

Tharpe noted inspectors faced difficulties with building codes under the old program and the town didn’t have a fire marshal to help inspect properties.

Darr suggested that Camp do more research on implementing building and maintenance programs. Burke noted that changes in the state code on property maintenance in part caused the town to discontinue its program in 2009.

State code likely would require the town change some parts of its inspection program should council pursue reviving the initiative, Burke said.

Tewalt said he would not support the creation of an inspections program because of the cost and lack of a way to recover that money. The town probably would need to spend money not currently in the budget, Tewalt said.

Darr echoed Tewalt’s concerns and said staff should provide cost and funding information for such a program.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com