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With more construction happening every year, Bozeman's building department could stop accepting applications and still have enough work to last them a year, chief building official Bob Risk said.

In the past five years, building permit revenues have risen dramatically, by about 38 percent, according to building division reports. Most of that has come from an increase in construction in higher-rise buildings, Risk said, which require more inspections and have to meet more qualifications.

In fact, the number of inspections the city's building department performed this year has more than doubled, rising from 18,627 in 2013 to 37,583 in fiscal year 2018.

And while that number has skyrocketed, the total number of inspectors remains at about six, the same number it was five years ago. Right now, there are three vacant positions, but it's been difficult to find people to fill them.

"We’ve been understaffed for years, and it’s a huge problem," Risk said.

It's difficult to recruit people from out of state, he said, considering how high the cost of living is in Bozeman compared to how much the city can pay. Depending on experience and certification, a new inspector could make about $41,000 to $58,000 a year.

Inspectors' salaries are determined by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which uses numbers from 22 cities with markets similar to Bozeman to determine how much to offer, assistant city manager Chuck Winn said. The building department runs as an enterprise fund, meaning it's funded through permits and doesn't receive money from the general fund.

Fewer inspectors means builders have to wait longer to finish projects, which can lead to higher costs for developers. And part of what building inspectors like to do is go beyond simply telling someone something needs to be fixed and explain why, Risk said. With inspectors stretched so thin, they have less time to do that. 

Developers are feeling the effects of an increasingly busy building department, said Matthew Paine, president of Paine Group Inc. Paine has worked in Bozeman for more than 10 years, and he said he's done bigger projects every year since recovering from the recession.

While he said most employees are doing the best they can and places similar to Bozeman are probably experiencing the same growing pains, he said the city is often busy and timelines staff give for projects often don't align with when things actually get done. Because of this, similar projects could end up costing different amounts in the end. 

While the building division has had its three vacancies for a while, Risk said the city is training some new inspectors, and he hopes to hire more in the future.

"We’ve been busy for a long time and I don’t see any sign of it slowing down any more," he said.

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Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.