Costs and Delays Result from Errors at Dobie Road Project

Tuesday, October 9, 2018, 7:09 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Amidst lots of governmental finger-pointing around a construction screw-up at the Dobie Road Ingham County Medical Care Facility, an investigation by ELi shows that City of East Lansing building department personnel hired to provide expertise on the project failed to catch that a contractor wasn’t properly licensed to be installing medical gas equipment.

The City of East Lansing also appears to have assigned the wrong kind of City inspector to the job – meaning that the City’s inspectors apparently didn’t know key components of the statewide construction code they were supposed to be upholding.

Had East Lansing’s Building Department personnel caught the licensing problem when they performed the plan reviews for Meridian Township and Ingham County on this project, a major problem might have been avoided.

The licensing issue was caught and brought to public attention by the local branch of the plumbers’ and pipefitters’ union – but not before the problematic installation was well underway.

According to reporting by Sarah Lehr for the Lansing State Journal, the mistakes “will cost $325,000 and set construction back six months” at the facility.

Background:

The project at issue involves an expansion of the County’s nursing home facilities on Dobie Road. The controversy specifically concerns the installation of medical gas equipment – equipment primarily needed to deliver oxygen to patients.

If medical gas equipment is installed improperly, grave danger can result to patients, visitors, and medical personnel. That’s partly because, if a fire breaks out and the oxygen delivery system malfunctions, the oxygen can feed the fire, causing it to grow rapidly .

In 2008, the State issued a special bulletin affirming that a plumber’s license is required for medical gas installation. A State construction code representative recently confirmed for ELi that State law still requires this kind of installation be managed by licensed plumbers and by plumbing inspectors.

The contractor hired by the Ingham County Medical Facility to do the medical gas installation in this case was Diamond Mechanical, which sometimes goes by the name Diamond Medical, out of Linden, Michigan. On the permit to do the work and in online advertising, Diamond Mechanical represented itself as being qualified to do medical gas installation.

But the named contractor had a mechanical contractor’s license from the State of Michigan, not the required plumber’s license.

The permit application to Meridian Township included that mechanical license number (and not a plumbing license).

The permit application also included, under “comments,” a “medical gas license” number supplied by the contractor. That “medical gas license” number appears to actually be a certification from a national trade group, not a government license to do medical gas installation.

How the City of East Lansing got involved:

Why would a project located in Meridian Township and owned and managed by Ingham County even involve the City of East Lansing?

Because Meridian Township hires the City of East Lansing to conduct construction plan reviews and to do mechanical, electrical, and plumbing inspections for Meridian Township.

This arrangement between the Township and the City dates back to a 2010 contract, a contract supplied by Township officials at ELi’s request.

According to the contract, East Lansing’s “Inspectors shall perform all inspections in accordance with the Michigan Electrical, Mechanical, and Plumbing Codes and applicable regulations and laws.”

Moreover, “The City represents and warrants to the Township that its inspectors have the capability, experience and certification required to perform the services contemplated by the Agreement consistent with such standards.”

The Ingham County Medical Facility is located in Meridian Township, so the permits for the project at issue were issued in the name of Meridian Township. The permit for the medical gas installation was signed by Meridian Township’s chief building official, John Heckaman.

But, according to Heckaman, all mechanical, electrical, and plumbing permits “are under the jurisdiction of [the City of] EL for plan review and inspection.” That is why, when the alarm was sounded by the plumbers’ union, it was East Lansing personnel who responded and ultimately cancelled the permit.

So, while the permit in this case was issued on Meridian Township letterhead, the plan review and permitting process appear to have been executed under the expertise of East Lansing building department personnel hired through the contract – specifically John Gross, a City of East Lansing plumbing and mechanical inspector.

In reviewing the permit and plans, East Lansing’s personnel didn’t catch that this was a job for a plumber, not a mechanical contractor.

When it was time for inspections on the medical gas work, the City of East Lansing assigned a relatively new mechanical inspector, Wayne Rivet.

After the problems came to light by virtue of the complaint from the plumbers’ union, Gross explained in an email what happened:

“Our new mechanical inspector, Wayne, responded to the mechanical contractor[‘]s questions (they stated they do this work all over the State) and looked at the pipe installation but was unaware of the requirement for plumbing supervision of med gas nor the need for plumbing permit.”

So, although City of East Lansing personnel were hired by Meridian Township for their expertise on the State’s construction code, they were “unaware” this was a kind of work that, by State law, requires a licensed plumber.

Whose fault was it?

In response to WLNS’s breaking report on this story, the City of East Lansing issued a press release stating, “The fundamental errors with this project are the responsibility of both Ingham County and the contractor who agreed to do the work despite not being properly licensed.”

So, the City primarily blamed the County and the contractor.

The City’s press release continued that “the contractor requested the incorrect permit type (mechanical instead of plumbing) from Meridian Township” and that the “subsequent inspection request” came to the City of East Lansing.

We asked Mark Stevens, Administrator for the Ingham County Medical Facility, if he thought that his office should have looked up what kind of license was required for medical gas installation and looked up whether the contractor had the right license. Does the fault lie with his office?

Says Stevens, “I think it is fair to say that people who passionately engage full-time plus in caring for people [in nursing homes] aren't the ones who know how to determine what license or code to follow for any number of complex building requirements, including med gas systems. My simple layperson's perspective is that building professionals and permit inspectors do that and then agree to it prior to starting any work.”

He adds, “Having said all that, in retrospect I obviously wish I would have looked up what the license and code requirements were. As you might imagine I've become much more knowledgeable about med gas systems than I was prior to all of this.”

East Lansing, in its responses to media reports, has suggested if the County didn’t get it right, then Meridian Township should have caught the problem when it issued the permit. In fact, when the LSJ report effectively blamed East Lansing, the City Manager demanded a correction about which municipality issued the permit, a correction which the LSJ issued.

What the City hasn’t said in all of its responses to media reports is that Meridian Township relies on East Lansing personnel to get these details right on plan reviews and inspections. In fact, Meridian Township’s mechanical permit application explicitly lists, as a contact, East Lansing inspector John Gross.

Who should pay for the mistake?

The way the law works, even if a municipality’s building department personnel screw up, it’s the property owner who is financially and legally responsible for making things right. In legal terminology, a municipality is not estopped from enforcing its laws by mistakes made by its employees in enforcing or administering the law.

So, legally, the City is right when it says this is ultimately the problem of Ingham County’s Medical Facility.

But Stephens, the administrator for the facility, still hopes that the City will help pay for the lost costs.

He tells ELi, “it would be wonderful to have the funds that were consumed by the med gas mistakes come back to the Facility due to the fact Ingham County Medical Care Facility is a governmental non-profit facility, [and] every penny we earn goes directly back to the people we care for. Our mission is 'Dedicated to Improving Lives,’ [and] getting back the funds used to cover the med gas mistake would certainly help with achieving our mission.”

Stevens concludes, “I do hope that when the dust settles and the parties involved have a chance to amicably discuss the facts from the beginning to the end, maybe the Medical Care Facility can get some help with covering the costs of all of this.”

East Lansing’s Director of Planning, Building, and Development, Tim Dempsey, did not respond to ELi’s request for comment. He told the LSJ that East Lansing will “absolutely not” be paying for the revision of the work.