Why am I being charged for a fire inspection that used to be free?
In 2008, the California State Fire Marshal determined that all multi-family residential apartment buildings, all public and private schools, condominiums, hotels and motels, assembly buildings, small and large family day cares, licensed residential care facilities, organized camps, laboratories, and nursing homes in the State of California shall be inspected annually by the local Fire Departments under Health and Safety Codes 13145, 13146 and 17921. As part of this, under Health and Safety Code 13146, a fee may be charged pursuant to the enforcement authority of this section but shall not exceed the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service pursuant to Section 66014 of the Government Code.
Building safety inspections by fire departments are essential to identify potential fire and life hazards before they occur. When inspections do not occur, disasters can result. Lawmakers have focused special attention on certain categories of buildings and require them to be inspected. These include the following occupancy types; multi-family housing of three or more dwelling units, hotel/motels, assemblies with 50 or more occupants, residential care facilities, healthcare/nursing homes, daycares of 7 or more clients, organized camps, laboratories, and high-rise buildings. The goal of any inspection should be the cooperative maintenance of a fire and life safe environment. This is done by ensuring that fire codes are complied with and that any compromising situation is corrected in an appropriate time frame. The inspections help the Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD) accomplish its mission of protecting property and saving lives. A good inspection program serves to remind building owners, property managers and tenants of the teamwork that is required to maintain a fire safe structure. The inspection conducted by the SVFD is an opportunity for the members of the Department to educate members of the public about fire and life safety. The time spent on an inspection is also a time to become familiar with buildings, unusual access issues, alarm systems and other fire protection systems in a company’s response area.
The infamous December 2016 Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire in which 36 people were killed brought this compliance of agencies and property owners to public attention. A state law (SB 1205) which became effective January 2019, now requires all fire departments to submit Annual Reports to their governing bodies or administering authorities regarding their compliance with the state’s mandate for annual fire safety inspections.
In an effort to provide a safer community, the Sonoma Valley Fire District has been performing these types of inspections for over 20 years.
Over the past five years we have experienced a progressive inability to perform these inspections on a regular basis. Secondary to an increase in calls for service (5% increase annually), an increase in the required training demands for operational fire suppression personnel, and an increase in plan check and construction inspection activity, we have not been able to maintain the inspection frequency requirements mandated by state law.
In early 2021, the Fire District re-allocated an employee to begin performing these mandated inspections as a pilot program. Following this pilot program, it was identified that the quantity and scope of work could not be completed by our operational fire suppression personnel.
In November 2021, the Sonoma Valley Fire District Board of Directors contracted with the Matrix Consulting Group to perform a fire prevention fee study and capacity assessment. The results of the study determined that our previous fire prevention fee schedule needed amendments. After following all of the public noticing and public hearing laws, the Sonoma Valley Fire District Board approved the new fire prevention fee schedule January 11, 2022 and approved the hiring of a full-time fire inspector to perform the required inspections.
General Fee Information (Legal Framework and Policy Considerations)
In accordance with the Government Finance Officers Association’s (GFOA - https://www.gfoa.org/) best practices and in an effort to provide easily understood cost estimates to our customers; The Sonoma Valley Fire District has established a “user fee” / flat fee program as related to Fire Prevention Fees.
A “user fee” is a charge for service provided by a governmental agency to a public citizen or group. In California, several constitutional laws such as Propositions 13, 4, and 218, State Government Codes 66014 and 66016, and more recently Prop 26 and the Attorney General’s Opinion 92-506 set the parameters under which the user fees typically administered by local government are established and administered. Specifically, California State Law, Government Code 66014(a), stipulates that user fees charged by local agencies “…may not exceed the estimated reasonable cost of providing the service for which the fee is charged”.