Last year, the county approved a plan by which it would continue to conduct fire inspections for towns, but it would come at a cost. The alternative was for towns to seek their own fire inspector, an option the City of Clinton took this week.
At the recent City Council meeting, Clinton Fire Chief Scott Phillips recommended the position of Fire Inspector Level III be added to the Fire Department. The Council directed City manager Shawn Purvis in December to prepare proposal for an in-house fire inspections program. Phillips subsequently prepared a job description for a position to bring fire inspections under the umbrella of the city so they could be completed as required under state statue.
“This will also allow the Fire Department and the city to help with public safety and improve the investments of those who own property in our community,” Phillips said. “This will also allow our personnel to have better knowledge of the contents of these properties to improve strategies for fire suppression.”
The city needs qualified personnel to assist in the development and administering of an effective inspections program, Purvis noted. With no such position on record, one had to be created. The proposed position is initially part-time for a Fire Inspector III, which the city requires due to existing industry and structures.
The estimated cost for that inspector is between $20,0000-$25,000, already included in the current budget. In addition to hiring a Level III inspector, Phillips said he and other members of the Fire Department staff will also work toward their Level III inspection certifications.
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 has said.
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.
With the county action, towns essentially have two options: assume responsibility for fire inspection services within their jurisdiction or have the county continue to do it at a cost.
“They would either amend that contract or ask us to go out on our own,” Mayor Lew Starling explained. “This would allow the city to go out on our own, and do our own inspections.”
Bass presented a proposal in September 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. 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.
He said the plan, which was subsequently approved by the Board of Commissioners, would allow the office to meet the required inspections “in a timely and professional manner.”
“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.”
If the county continues to perform all the inspections, two additional inspectors would be needed, Bass said at the time. 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, he noted.
With the City Council’s action, only one inspector will be necessary in the county.
“This is the very first step for us,” Purvis remarked. “We’ve included everything in the budget as preparation.”
Based on what the city would be billed by the county, versus what it is allocating for the position, it is essentially “a wash,” the city manager noted.
“But it gives us more control,” Purvis pointed out.
According to the county’s 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.
“I think this is the future of the inspection program in this county,” Bass remarked.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.