BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — He’s aggravating, infuriating, loud and intimidating, by nearly all accounts. And, as Bay St. Louis tries to get back on its feet, he’s arguably the most powerful person in town. Meet Bill Carrigee, chief building inspector.
Few dispute that Carrigee knows his business. He’s been working in the building department here for more than 13 years, and in the construction business for 30. He is sought out by other departments in the state to interpret building code and teach classes on the subject.
But now the man known before Hurricane Katrina to be detail oriented — to put a positive spin on it — has final say on hundreds of projects at once. His tiny staff is stretched to the breaking point. Residents and builders say Carrigee subjects many projects to a long series of niggling inspections. If he was controversial before, he is now a lightening rod for frustration at the slow pace of recovery.
“You can pick an inspection to death, and the inspection is never over,” says one builder who asked not to be named. “He can make your life absolutely miserable.”
Carrigee, a towering man with a booming voice, is well aware that he has a reputation, but he insists that his goal is to see that projects adhere to the intent of the building code, especially where safety is concerned.
“It's just human nature,” he says. “People are frustrated. They don’t want to be told what to do with their houses. Compound it by they’ve lost everything. They’re making mistakes they may not have otherwise.”
One big problem, he says, is that in their rush to rebuild, people get permits themselves, and then hire contractors who are not licensed to work in the area. If there’s a rip-off or a problem with the work, he says, the contractor can’t be held accountable unless the permit is under their name.
At the mention of the large number of volunteers involved in the building process, Carrigee heaves a big sigh. In one case, he says volunteers came through and put up sheetrock on five houses before his department had signed off on the wiring. The group, which he declined to name, didn’t want to remove the sheetrock. He refused to sign off on the electrical work without seeing it, and the project still remained in limbo this week.
Carrigee’s manner often takes newcomers and locals inexperienced in building by surprise. One local woman says her first meeting with him left her in tears.
Support from mayor, council
The City Council and Mayor Eddie Favre are used to getting an earful on Carrigee, but they still support him.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” says Favre, who agrees that people do find Carrigee “big and intimidating.”
“We’re trying to open it up to allow as many folks as possible to help our people get their houses together ... but it’s still our responsibility to make sure the work is to code,” says Favre.
An article in the Sun Herald of Gulfport on Sunday highlighted the swirl of emotion surrounding Carrigee. It quoted Carrigee as saying an unnamed woman marched into his office two months ago demanding a permit and threatening, if he did not provide one, to reveal a dark secret — a felony conviction for aggravated burglary committed as a young man.
According to the article, Carrigee said the woman wanted him to “look the other way while she built a home that did not meet codes.” When he refused to bow to the threat, it said, she went public with his conviction, which resulted in a brief stint in Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Penitentiary at the age of 18 before being pardoned by the governor shortly thereafter.
Carrigee's criminal history was not actually news to many in the town, however, including Mayor Favre who restated his support for the controversial city employee.
'Make him think it is his idea'
Most longtime residents and local builders in Bay St. Louis know better than to be go head to head with the Carrigee.
“You have to make him think it is his idea or he’s going to make your life miserable,” says one longtime resident.
“If he meets you and he likes you … you’re kind of treated one way and there are faster ways of doing things,” says a commercial builder.
For Carrigee, the key difference is one of intent and attitude.
“You walk through the door and you want to do it right, I’m your best friend,” he says. “You walk through the door with an attitude, I can have an attitude too.”
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