Friday, March 01, 2013

Star: Ballard's Fire Inspection Fees Spark Outcry

Finally someone in the local news media is reporting on Mayor Greg Ballard's illegal self-inspection program to ensure compliance by the City's business owners with the state fire code. The Star's Jon Murray reports on the outcry from small business owners over the new self-inspection program being forced on all Indianapolis business owners.
A newly aggressive fire safety program that includes the addition of annual inspection fees has prompted an outcry from some Indianapolis small business owners.
The new fees for Indianapolis Fire Department inspections range from $50 to $150, depending on a structure’s size, and were designed to cover the costs of IFD’s inspection program. Beyond that, IFD is offering owners and tenants of low-risk properties an alternative that state officials say is new in Indiana: self-inspection.
Submitting a self-inspection form will cost $25, half the cost of the cheapest fee for an in-person visit from an IFD inspector. However, IFD previously didn’t charge for an inspection unless violations piled up.
The new option doesn’t sit well with Joan Miller, president of the 100-member Greater Southport Business Alliance.
“I had just thought it didn’t sound quite reasonable,” said Miller, who has owned Forty Minute Cleaners on Madison Avenue for 27 years. She echoed others’ concerns that the city has piled too many user fees onto businesses. “Small businesses just get nickel-and-dimed to death.”
As I've previously reported, the new self-inspection program has absolutely nothing to do with fire safety; it's all about extorting money from Indianapolis' business owners through yet another fee. The City tells a business owner he must agree to self-inspect his premises, complete a lengthy questionnaire under penalties of perjury and pay a $25 filing fee annually; otherwise, the fire department says it will dispatch a certified fire inspector to visit your business and charge you an inspection fee of $50 to $150. Business owners are not licensed to inspect properties to ensure compliance with the state fire code, and state law mandates that the fire department, not business owners, is responsible for inspecting buildings to ensure compliance with the law. Moreover, the self-inspection program subjects building lessees, in addition to property owners, to the self-inspection program. If a multi-tenant office building has 100 lessees renting office space of varying sizes, each lessee is subject to the self-inspection requirement, in addition to the property owner. Thus, the fire department would collect over $2,500 in fees annually from a building with 100 lessees. You could rent a one-room office or 10,000 square feet of office suites and still be subject to the same fee. Here's what a spokesperson for IFD told Murray about the self-inspection program as it relates to lessees:
The self-inspection form that was sent to eligible businesses and property owners includes nearly 40 checklist items grouped into categories including the building’s exterior and interior, corridors, electrical, storage space, extinguishers and gas appliances.
Call it an honor system, with the back of the two-sided form asking for a signature under penalty of perjury.
Asked about building tenants’ confusion about the forms, IFD spokeswoman Rita Burris said IFD considers the landlord responsible for a building’s fire-prevention systems and safety efforts in common areas; those are likely to get in-person inspections from IFD. But, she said, it’s up to tenants to keep their own spaces up to code.
The self-inspection program, Burris said, offers “a measure for them to be empowered and to do their own inspection and to understand it as part of their tenant responsibility.”
IFD plans to send inspectors to visit properties that participate in the self-inspection program every three years or so.
According to Murray's story, IFD's Fire Marshall Free Pervine claims the department sent out about 6,000 letters. I believe Pervine is grossly under-stating how many letters were sent out because that number couldn't  represent every building owner and commercial tenant within IFD's coverage. Furthermore, when the proposal went before the council, Pervine told the council their detail fiscal analysis indicated that the fiscal impact of the fees would be approximately $636,000. If you divide that number by the $25 fee, you come up with 25,440. Murray's story confirms the $636,000 number was based only on a 58% compliance rate. "This year, the fees for self-inspections and IFD visits will raise an estimated $636,840, based conservatively on a 58 percent collection rate," Murray writes. "If more pay up, the fees could raise $1 million or more."

According to the building owner where my office is located, IFD several months ago requested a list and contact information of all tenants within the building without telling the landlord the purpose of the request. Our building owner estimated that tenants would pay more than $2,000 in combined self-inspection fees alone, never mind the fact that our building's owner, like other building owners, has an annual contract with a lifes safety company to ensure compliance with fire code standards. The only reason that IFD sought to notice every single tenant in a multi-tenant commercial building was so it could shake down more business owners for more fees in lieu of raising taxes to pay for fire services. After all, Mayor Ballard has to find some way of paying for a new fire department headquarters, a new fire station and new credit union for their employees after he decided to give away the city-owned property in the 500 block of Mass Avenue currently owned by IFD to one of his pay-to-play contractor friends to redevelop for their private use.

When Murray contacted state officials about the self-inspection program, he was told they were unaware of any other city in the state which had implemented a self-inspection program, and that state officials had not yet considered the legality of delegating the responsibility to property owners and lessees, although it apparently is done in some cities located in other states. He cites Sacramento, California as an example. Of course, state and local governments throughout the Golden State are teetering on bankruptcy after decades of over-spending and unprecedented debt accumulation. No surprise they would dump the responsibility charged to fire departments on building owners and lessees. Murray's story notes that Indiana law imposes the inspection responsibility on a city's fire department and makes no provision for self-inspection, instead, by building owners and lessees. Murray says the state's Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission is expected to take up the issue of Indianapolis' new self-inspection program at its April 2 meeting, which is only three days before the April 5 deadline for submitting the self-inspection affidavits and $25 filing fee. I have no intention of complying with this illegal ordinance, and I would urge every other business owner and lessee to ignore the city's threatening letter, which I view as nothing more than an extortion demand. If the city tries to enforce this illegal ordinance, there will be a legal challenge. You can count on it.


CircleCityScribe said...

-just an idea:

How about Ballard bill Frank Straub for the problems with his Eastgate Public Safety Center? -Straub was reported to have bypassed the Corporation Counsel's office and signed the contract and we've paid hundreds of thousands for a fireman to hang out there and walk around while the fire system didn't work. That money spent on overtime would likely be more than any of those "user fees"....just sayin'

Had Enough Indy? said...

I have to note again, that state law limits fees charged to the cost of providing the service itself. So, the cost to IFD of the self-inspection program, is all they can recoup through the fee charged. The $25 fee doesn't meet that law.

Unigov said...

The aspect of this BS that needs more emphasis is that state law doesn't require *annual* inspections. Doesn't even require repeat inspections. Just one. Annual inspections for fire code adherence would be overkill - it's not like every attorney's office might decide one year to begin storing oily rags on-site.

So that's my big thing - yes, the City law is idiotic, but annual inspections are equally idiotic.

The annual approach was instituted along with self-inspection in order to extort as much money as possible from businesses. Not only does the City want $25 for doing nothing, it wants it every goshdarn year.

Covenant60 said...

Ridiculours... this has nothing to do with fire safety. It's a government shakedown pure and simple.

"Pay us 25 bucks and we wont inspect your space for fire code violations"

I tossed my letter in the trash.

Douglas Karr said...

Well, tossing the letter in the trash doesn't work. They came and did a MANDATORY inspection because I did not respond. That is costing me $50 in addition to a 20% "Administrative Fee". And the paperwork says that if I don't pay it within 30 days, legal action is threatened.

Why to improve the corporate climate downtown!