Atwater council split on changing fire inspection fees for businesses

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 25, 2013 

— Businesses will no longer pay annual fire inspection fees, but will be charged for revisits if they fail the first inspection, according to a split vote by the Atwater City Council this week.

Councilman Joe Rivero and Councilman Jeff Rivero voted against the item during Monday’s meeting.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Pimentel said fees for business inspections started at $60 and went up based on the size of the building and potential hazards.

Now, businesses will pay only if they fail the first inspection and the fire inspectors have to come back for a second or third visit.

“I believe it’s beneficial for business owners, as long we we’re able to provide them with some initial information to prepare themselves,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel estimated that roughly 90 percent of Atwater businesses do not pass the first inspection and require revisits from the department. The fire department will let business owners correct minor violations, Pimentel said, but will require a revisit for major issues like not having exit signs above the doors or having outdated fire extinguishers.

The revenue from fire inspection fees goes into the city’s general fund, Pimentel said. The estimated revenue from the fees is about $6,000, said Atwater Mayor Joan Faul.

Faul acknowledged the city is continuing to keep a close eye on its revenue after passing its first balanced budget in three years, but said the council wanted to give business owners a break.

“We’ve raised their water and utility rates, so we felt this was a way we could show the business people we are supporting them,” Faul said. “The business people are having a real tough time, so we felt this was a way to help.”

However, Councilman Jeff Rivero said the city failed to charge business license fees to many Atwater businesses in the past. Because of the error, he said, the city should give those businesses a year to get caught up before making any changes.

The business license includes the fire inspection fee, he said.

“It’s obvious that our finance department did not bill these people,” Rivero said. “The city missed quite a few businesses, so I think it’s a fair system to let these people have a year to catch up.”

Rivero said City Manager Frank Pietro has done a good job of organizing the city’s finance department and recovering business license fees. However, the city can only go back for three years of missed fees.

“I don’t think it’s right to the businesses that the city has made a mistake of not charging to ask them to pay the fees back for the last three years – and then turning around and charging them reinspection fees,” Rivero added.

The city nets an estimated $93,000 a year in revenue from business license fees. They are projected to bring in about $250,000 from recovering fees from the missed businesses.

Waiting a year would also give the companies an opportunity to understand what’s expected of them during an inspection, Rivero said.

“If 90 percent of people are not passing a fire inspection, there’s an issue,” he said. “So if that approximation is correct, those people will end up paying the revisit fees anyway.”

Councilman Joe Rivero, who also voted against the item, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Councilman Larry Bergman said he supported the change, but said the city has gone back and forth on the issue of charging fire inspection fees.

“One of the issues I had in the past was businesses did not know what the new (fire) codes were,” Bergman said. He proposed giving the businesses information about the codes and including it in the city’s newsletter. “That way, they know ahead of time what is expected of them so they can take care of it.”

There are about 1,800 businesses in the city of Atwater; roughly 41 have opened since June.

Passadori’s Inc., which sells furniture in Atwater, has been in business for 94 years. Treasurer Steve Passadori said not paying an annual fire inspection fee will be a big help to his business.

“Every time you get an assessment, you get nickeled-and-dimed and it’s more and more out of your pocket. It’s hard to make a profit when they’re doing that,” Passadori said. “It’s less money out of our pockets that we can put into inventory, marketing and merchandising.”

The change in fire inspection fees will be retroactive and businesses will be charged for reinspection fees from June of this year, according to city officials.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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