Brick-and-mortar businesses must periodically comply with various fire code regulations in order to operate, but depending on whether they are in the village of Fredonia or the city of Dunkirk, they may be required to pay a set fee to get an inspection done.
For many years, Fredonia has relied on businesses paying that fee to the code enforcement office, while Dunkirk firefighters conduct those same inspections at no charge. So, why the fees?
"My understanding is the fee is there to offset the cost of having the inspector there," Village Inspection Officer Larry Barter said. "It takes into account my time working on this, because a lot of the time, it's not just the physical presence being in the building, it also goes into the education and the background that you have to have to do the job. You do have to go to school and re-certify."
Barter said he must have at least 24 hours of in-service training every year in order to be certified by the state to conduct inspections.
"We try to make sure that the fee covers the expenses associated with doing the inspections," Village Attorney Samuel Drayo said. "It's hard to get the fee exact, but they try to make sure they recuperate enough to cover costs. So, it's borne by the user who's applying for the inspection; that way it's not a general tax on the public."
Drayo added the Fredonia Fire Department (which has seven paid firemen) is much smaller than Dunkirk's (25 paid firemen), which also contributes to why the fire department does not do the inspections.
Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe agreed with Drayo on that point and said the village could technically put the fire department in charge of inspections, but it would come at an "astronomical cost."
"Firemen get paid a whole lot more than our inspection officers, and right now, we have one and a half people working the inspections," he said. "We have a part-time supervisor in there now, so we are cutting expenses in that department."
Dunkirk Fire Chief Keith Ahlstrom said there is no cost on the fire department's side, other than time.
"The inspections are and have always been built into our regular job duties, so it's not that we bring in people extra to do them; we do them during regular working hours," he said.
According to a paid fees report from the Fredonia Code Enforcement Office, about $8,650 was collected in 2013 from certificate of compliance fees for commercial fire inspections. The certificate declares a building housing a business (or multiple businesses) has passed its regular inspection. It is different from a certificate of occupancy, which is issued when a building is first erected or a business is first established.
Barter explained the fee schedule in a phone interview.
"The small buildings, or anything under 6,000 square feet, which is by far the predominant amount of inspections we have, would be a $50 fee," he said, adding structures such as One Park Place are charged as a whole instead of assessing the individual tenants the fee. "Anything over 25,000 square feet is $325, which is the maximum."
Keefe said the Fredonia inspection supervisor, Charles LaBarbera, has asked the village board if it wishes to review the fees system. Drayo said the last time the fee schedule was revised by the village board was in July 2006.
"The board periodically reviews the fee schedule and they fix it by resolution," Drayo said. "That is set forth in our village law. Normally, we'll review the fees to see if they're reasonable, or if they need to be increased because of additional administrative duties or costs or additional time it takes to complete the review."
"(Reviewing the fee schedule) is something I'm sure we have coming up in the near future," Keefe said, adding the board may also look into revising the annual inspection requirement for some businesses. "No matter what we do, it's all board approval, and we need information."
According to a local village law, a business must renew its certificate of compliance every year, meaning a fee is assessed every year. Barter said local municipalities can change that to every three years, at most, but assembly occupancies (e.g. bars and restaurants) must be inspected every year, according to state law.
Ahlstrom said Dunkirk does it slightly differently from Fredonia.
"We do most of them ... every two years, some of them every year," he said. "There are some buildings, because of their occupancy ... like halls that have more than 50 people, that have to be inspected on a yearly basis. It's all over the board."
Barter explained how the village goes about conducting inspections.
"The inspection is based on the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, specifically of that, the Fire Code of New York State and the Property Maintenance Code," he said. "Each structure must comply with these regulations to one degree or another."
Inspections include checks on the fire detection system and means of egressing the building, as well as heating and electrical system plans, the storage of combustible and/or explosive materials and the handling of hazardous materials. Gas stations, vehicle repair facilities, storage facilities and many other specific-use structures have their own compliance measures, as well.
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