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City Council approves fire inspections

The City Council unanimously approved a new fire hazard inspection program for businesses, apartment buildings, nursing homes, churches, schools and other buildings Tuesday night.

The program does not cover single family homes and duplexes, although owners of those homes could request inspections after the program is under way.

Apartment buildings with three or more units would be subject to the inspections, although Ashland Fire & Rescue would only inspect common areas and hallways, not private dwelling areas, Fire Chief John Karns said.

Owners will have to pay inspection fees that range from $32 for a small business occupying 1,000 square feet or less, to $192 for a business that is more than 20,000 square feet or an apartment building with more than 70 units.

Ashland Fire & Rescue staff will inspect buildings for hazards such as disconnected fire alarms, items blocking emergency exits and sprinkler systems that aren't properly installed.

If staff members discover a problem, they will come back again for no charge to see if the problem has been corrected.

If the problem has not been corrected after the second inspection, another inspection fee will be assessed, plus a $50 fine. Non-compliance after a third inspection will lead to another inspection fee and a $100 fee, while non-compliance after fourth and subsequent inspections will lead to more inspection fees plus $150 fines.

Ashland Fire & Rescue suspended regular fire hazard inspections of buildings more than a decade ago due to a lack of staffing.

Karns, who came from California to head Ashland Fire & Rescue earlier this year, said fire inspections are an expected and required function of fire departments in Oregon.

"This is a basic function of most fire departments, and it's certainly a priority of mine," he said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue occasionally inspects buildings that have a high fire hazard or where many people could die. But there are currently no fire prevention and safety inspections of regular businesses and multi-family buildings in Ashland, according to Karns.

Firefighter-paramedics would inspect simpler buildings, but Karns is hoping the fees will bring in enough funding for the department to rehire a fire inspector. The department's fire inspector was laid off in 2008 due to a lack of funding.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said Karns will have to make the case for rehiring a fire inspector during the annual budgeting process.

The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee, which is made up of residents and elected officials, will begin the budgeting process for the coming fiscal year in early 2010.

Also Tuesday night, the City Council voted unanimously for Ashland Fire & Rescue to apply for a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

City Councilors decided to ask for funding to fill a vacant firefighter position. That position is separate from the fire inspector position.

If the city wins the grant to fund a firefighter, it would receive almost $100,000 per year for two years to pay for the firefighter's salary and benefits. The firefighter could be laid off in the third year under the terms of the grant.

If the city wins the grant, it will not have to pay any money for the firefighter and will also save $57,666 in overtime costs each year.

The City Council shied away from asking for four firefighters through the grant. Three of the four would have been new hires, and under the terms of the grant, the city would not be able to lay off the new hires and would have had to bear the full costs of their salaries and benefits in the third year.

"I'm not comfortable taking that gamble," Councilor Greg Lemhouse said, echoing the views of other councilors who voted to seek grant funding for only one replacement firefighter.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said he did some calculations, and the city would have had to raise property taxes to their legal ceiling and begin setting aside money in order to pay the costs of the extra firefighters in the third year.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.