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Council refining trades licensing

Altoona City Council on Monday moved toward consensus on changing how it will regulate the plumbing and electrical trades, in hopes of increasing competition, lowering customer costs and promoting safety.

The changes could include relaxing rules governing the issuing of master’s licenses, shifting from third-party to in-house inspections and reducing inspection fees.

Relaxing the requirements for becoming a master, while still ensuring that licensees are competent, should increase the number of tradespeople qualified to work in the city, thus increasing competition and reducing customer costs, officials hope.

Shifting from third-party to in-house inspections would make it easier and quicker to obtain those inspections, officials hope.

Lowering job costs and inspecting jobs promptly — along with lowering inspection fees — should reduce the suspected high number of jobs being done “under the table” and never inspected, officials hope.

Relaxing the rules for masters could include giving the plumbing and electrical boards more discretion in evaluating relevant experience among those applying to take the city’s third-party master’s exam.

The boards might thus exercise more judgment in evaluating documentation for the number of hours worked under certain conditions, in evaluating an applicant’s experience as a company owner or even, perhaps, in evaluating testing results, for example.

The owner of a plumbing or electrical firm may or may not be a tradesman at all — let alone a competent one, according to City Manager Ken Decker.

Some applicants might ace a paper test but be less competent in the field — or vice-versa, officials suggested.

Much of the discussion regarding who should qualify to take a master’s test centered on a case from a few years ago in which a local plumber licensed as a master in Johnstown was denied the opportunity to test in Altoona because he never completed two years as a journeyman under a master.

Council members, including Dave Butterbaugh, Matt Cacciotti and Joe Carper, have been hoping to ensure that tradesmen who seem clearly competent aren’t shut out.

Still, the ultimate insurance for the city is inspection, Decker said.

Licensees whose jobs fail repeatedly are candidates for revocation, he indicated.

But arranging for prompt inspections in the city has been a problem in the last several years, after a rash of personnel losses in the Department of Codes and Inspections led to the hiring of a third-party firm for mechanical, electrical and plumbing work, according to department Director Rebecca Brown.

More recently, the firm has become responsible for building inspections, too, she said.

The outsourcing was originally meant to be temporary, Brown said.

The city is already looking to hire one inspector, she said.

That hire could become the nucleus around which a formidable in-house team could eventually be built, Decker said.

Reducing inspection fees, meanwhile, would further encourage compliance, Decker said.

There are inspections that now cost that about $80 that maybe should be about $20, he suggested.

In the case of low-income residents, it might behoove the city to forgive the cost altogether, he suggested.

Taking a loss on inspections can be an acceptable trade-off in service of more important goals, especially public safety, Decker indicated.

Inspections are especially critical for electrical work, to ensure against code violations that can cause fires, said Fire Chief Tim Hileman.

The ultimate test of the proposed regulatory changes will be “if more people pull permits,” Hileman said.

It all should be done without raising taxes, Butterbaugh said.

“The goal is a more realistic (system),” Butterbaugh said. “We’re now supporting anarchy.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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