Home Construction Trends

Crews work on a new home being built in the Valley West subdivision in Bozeman in this Chronicle file photo.

As busy, construction-heavy summer months approach, the city of Bozeman’s planning and building departments are facing a worker shortage.

Since the Chronicle reported that the building department was understaffed in December, it has lost two more inspectors, bringing the total number of vacancies in the department to five.

On top of that, planning is also short two planners, a planning technician and an administrative assistant, with another planner out on maternity leave until August.

“It was kind of a perfect storm of having people out on extended leave and people moving to other positions and moving on, all at the same time,” said Marty Matsen, director of community development.

A worker shortage has meant delays for those working with both departments. The recording reached when calling planning says people can expect delayed response times of two to four weeks.

The number of applications planning has received has remained the same over the past few weeks since the shortage began to be felt in full force, and staff are at “maximum capacity,” Matsen said.

He said the city is in the middle of recruiting and interviewing for the positions, and he hopes planning will be back to regular staffing numbers by mid- to late-June. Still, it will take some time before new planners will have enough training to take on complex projects, he said.

While planning stays consistently busy throughout the year, Matsen said building will especially be feeling the shortage as it heads into summer.

“On the building side, we’re just crossing our fingers and hoping we get some good applicants,” he said.

Though it hasn’t been as bad as it is now, the building department has been consistently understaffed for the past five or six years, chief building official Bob Risk said. It’s a sharp contrast to when he first started and people had to be laid off because there wasn’t enough work to do, he said.

With only three inspectors, people are seeing delays of maybe a day or two, Risk said, and it leaves less time for inspectors to spend with each contractor explaining why something’s wrong, rather than simply telling them.

In the past five years, the number of building inspections has more than doubled, increasing from 18,627 in 2013 to 37,583 in fiscal year 2018. Meanwhile, the number of inspector positions in the department has stayed roughly the same, barring the recent shortage.

A slowdown in the city’s building and planning departments has prompted contractor Patrick Eibs with Higher Standard Homes to shift to building more in Belgrade than Bozeman. Last year, he said, he worked on 18 homes in Bozeman and three in Belgrade. This year, he will work on 11 homes in Bozeman and 19 in Belgrade.

In Bozeman, he said it can take 30 to 31 weeks to go through all the city’s channels to build a house. In Belgrade, it takes him 18 weeks.

“Time is money,” he said, and it makes more sense for him to build somewhere he can build faster.

He said he sees many contractors seeking work outside of Bozeman for this reason. The result is that fewer houses get built as demand remains high, driving home prices up.

Risk told the Chronicle in December that it’s difficult to recruit inspectors from out of state, 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 building inspector could make $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 is self-funded through permits.

The city has opened contract negotiations with MFPE. Its first meeting is scheduled for the end of this month, Winn said. City and union officials have until June 30 to come up with a new contract.

Risk said he wishes negotiations would begin sooner rather than later. If the department isn’t able to hire more inspectors, he could see delays stretching to three or four days.

He said he doesn’t know when the department will be fully staffed.

“My crystal ball is dirty right now, so I can’t say exactly how it’s going to go,” he said.

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

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