For years, all fire inspections within Sampson and its towns have been conducted by the county, which simply cannot continue doing that without fees and more personnel, Emergency Management director Ronald Bass said this week.
Bass presented a proposal for additional staffing and a fee schedule that would allow the county to conduct fire inspections countywide to meet the requirements of the Fire Prevention Code as of July 1, 2016. Approving that proposal now would allow the county to collaborate with towns to ensure implementation by that time, Bass told the Sampson Board of Commissioners.
The fees will ensure no additional cost is shouldered by the county.
“Our office currently conducts all fire inspections in the county and all municipalities. We are currently unable to meet the requirements of the Fire Prevention Code due to being understaffed,” Bass said. “We feel this proposal, if approved, would allow our office to meet the required inspections in a timely and professional manner.”
A local canvass determined there were a total of 2,272 “occupancies” throughout the county. Of those, 772 were located in the county, 960 were located within the city limits and ETJ of Clinton and the remaining 540 were located in the other municipalities.
“Based on the inspection schedule, our office would need to complete 1,009 inspections each year just to meet the minimum inspection schedule,” said Bass, who noted that figure did not include compliance inspections and others.
“As we have discussed over the past months, we simply do not have the staff to complete the required number of inspections,” the EM director stated. “The county has provided the service throughout the county and in each municipality since fire prevention inspections were mandated by the state in the early 90s.”
Sampson County, unlike most jurisdictions throughout the state, has not implemented inspection fees to defray the cost of delivering the service.
“We charge for fire events,” Bass said, “but not for fire inspections.”
“We believe adopting an inspection fee schedule would be the best option in moving forward to fund the additional staff necessary to do countywide inspections efficiently and equitably,” Bass said.
If the county continues to perform all the inspections, two additional inspectors will be needed. If the City of Clinton — where the majority of the inspections are conducted — assumes inspections within the city limits, only one additional inspector would be necessary.
The budget and the implementation of fees is designed to cover the cost of adding two employees, roughly $150,000 annually.
State law indicates that counties are under no statutory obligation to offer such services within incorporated municipalities. The cost of building inspection services is offset somewhat by the fees paid by those citizens or contractors requesting such services. However, the absence of a similar fee for fire inspections does not allow the county to recoup costs.
That hampers the ability to conduct fire inspections efficiently, regularly and equitably, county officials said.
County manager Ed Causey said there were essentially two options: the municipal governments could assume the responsibility for fire inspection services within their jurisdiction, or the county could continue to provide fire inspections services at a cost — an “appropriate alternative,” he said.
Those towns would have to adopt a memorandum of understanding, by which an invoice would be left at each inspection with the fees remitted to and collected by the respective municipality.
“I think this is the future of the inspection program in this county,” Bass remarked.
According to the approved proposal, inspection fees will range from $50 for structures 5,000 square feet up to $250 for those greater than 100,000 square feet.
An invoice for all inspection and permit fees will be issued to the respective business, which will remit all fees to the jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction will be responsible for collections and the Fire Marshal’s Office will provide a monthly statement for payment to each municipality.
Commissioner Harry Parker agreed that it “was a good time to look into these things,” and said it sounded like a solid program. A former fire marshal himself, Parker said a more equitable process was needed so everyone was subject to the same standards.
“It’s important that we do this from a public relations standpoint,” said Parker. “It’s a big factor. I welcome that change.”
The vote was 4-1 to move forward with the proposal. Commissioner Albert Kirby dissented, but offered no comment during the discussion.
Bass asked that the county be able to try the new process for one year and then re-evaluate. Causey agreed, saying the proposal should be revisited after a year to ensure fees adequately cover costs.
“We would want the ability to come back and adjust these memorandums,” the county manager said.
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.