On safety, city must not rush

Many Altoona residents probably wouldn’t be opposed to the city rescinding some of its rules governing plumbing and electrical work, and about who is authorized to perform that work.

There are residents who consider certain existing rules problematic; they believe that the mandates infringe on their rights as homeowners, tenants or business owners.

While admittedly those mandates do represent a measure of infringement, they nevertheless exist for good reasons, the most important of which are individual safety and protection of the general public.

They’re not in place to bolster the health of the city’s coffers; there are costs involved for any municipality enforcing compliance with electrical and plumbing codes.

Deteriorated or improperly installed electric service is a “welcome mat” for fires and other potentially deadly situations. Regarding deteriorated or improperly installed plumbing, the dangers include — but are not limited to — possible water-system contamination, sewer gas and mold.

With much of Altoona’s housing stock about a century old, homes are candidates for plumbing and electrical problems, and businesses aren’t exempt from such concerns.

People old enough to remember the 1960s and ’70s in Altoona can recall the numerous blazes that were caused by electrical problems, especially in old homes. Fortunately, redevelopment projects at that time eliminated numerous properties that were deteriorated both structurally and in terms of their internal services and fixtures.

But back to some local residents’ and officials’ belief that current electrical and plumbing rules are perhaps too tough: What’s evolving is an opinion that rules governing licensing of plumbers and electricians should be liberalized to encourage more competition in those trades, hopefully reducing costs for homeowners and builders.

Many residents will see that as laudable, but they also should be concerned that any relaxation doesn’t open a window to detrimental outcomes.

“Safety was and remains the sole reason for the requirement that only qualified, licensed tradesmen conduct work to the mechanics of buildings in our city,” states a memo distributed at a city council work session.

“We’re going to look at our options to see if there’s a new balance we can strike between allowing qualified and skilled tradespeople to work, while continuing our responsibility (for) public safety,” said Rebecca Brown, director of the city’s Department of Codes and Inspections.

City Manager Marla Marcinko said staff members would begin examining licensing policies other municipalities have in place for electricians and plumbers.

That’s a good initial step. Compiling that “bigger picture” might help Altoona avoid some of the problems others have encountered along the way, especially if they chose to relax some of their own previous licensing provisions.

There are a number of options available to Altoona, as a March 4 Mirror article reported.

Local officials must examine and evaluate each option carefully because, as Tom Schultz, a retired journeyman electrician and Electrical Examiners Board member, was quoted as saying in that article, “It (relaxing of rules) could be bad, and it could be good.”

With 101 electricians and 82 plumbers currently licensed by Altoona, the city has the luxury of not having to rush to any conclusions. Still, that shouldn’t be allowed to deter progress on the various potentially valuable considerations underway.

With the safety factor at stake, though, caution will be the city’s best ally in the discussions ahead.

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