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December 2, 2009 > Fire inspection fee schedule revised

Fire inspection fee schedule revised

By Dustin Findley

In 2003, Milpitas City Council adopted a fee resolution which increased the standard, hourly-rate for a fire inspection from $98 to $104. The latter is significantly less than the fully-burdened, hourly rate of $137.78 of an inspector, currently determined by the city's Finance Department. This amount includes salary, benefit and overhead costs.

Prior to the 2003 fee adoption, the cost recovery was 68 percent and the General Fund subsidy was 32 percent. After the fee adjustment, cost recovery only increased to 72 percent and the General Fund continued to cover the shortfall.

"The inspection process involves more than just walking the site..." said Milpitas Fire Marshal Patricia Joki.

Costing a process not only entails determining the hourly cost of relevant city employees but how long the particular process takes.

Inspectors must prepare for the visit; this may involve a review of the site file, which is archived electronically, and computer data. They must then schedule an appointment with the owners, if requested, and prepare the inspection report.

Inspectors then drive to the site, complete the inspection, return to City Hall, update the database, prepare a copy of the inspection report, send it to the contact person, follow up to ensure compliance. The latter might require further inspections, letters, document review and possible citations.

To arrive at the average time to complete the fire inspection process fire staff reviewed the raw data in the Fire Department's record management system to determine the approximate time necessary to complete known activities.

Joki listed each task and associated average time as either a plan-check activity or preparatory activity before meting with staff to identify the full inspection process based upon their knowledge and experience. They included hazardous material inspectors, fire prevention inspectors, plan check engineers, assistant fire marshal and clerical staff. The result is the annual inspection process for small apartment buildings takes an average of approximately three hours to complete.

"Some take more, some take less, but that was the average" Joki said.

The fee-collection process has also been streamlined.

Between 1995 and 2003, fees were based on a $98 per hour standard rate. There were no fixed fees for services. The city billed the property owners monthly for the increments of time expended by city personnel to ensure compliance; this created multiple invoices and customer payments and is an ineffective use of time.

To streamline the accounts receivable process, staff created a proposed fee schedule with flat-rate charges for each inspection type.

The proposed flat-rate fees were calculated by multiplying the hourly rate for inspectors by the average time to conduct certain standard regulatory activities, including fire and life safety inspections. This gives property owners a known cost and reduces the administrative and accounting burdens for the city and community.

Given the analytical techniques employed by fire staff to derive costs and time to arrive at fees for the fire inspection process, the current amounts are not excessive, not improperly calculated and do not exceed the cost of the service provided.

State Fire Marshal Grijalva is responsible for statutory mandates contained in the Health and Safety Code requiring residential occupancies of a particular type, such as an R-1 occupancy, to be inspected.

In his experience, Milpitas' methodology is consistent with industry standards in California. The state Fire Marshal delegates authority to local fire chiefs to implement state mandate. This includes recovery of fees for doing so.

The fire-fee schedule can be found on the City of Milpitas' website at www.ci.milpitas.ca.gov

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