There was some trepidation by a couple of councilmembers, but the majority of the Ramsey City Council Nov. 12 eventually agreed to replace an outgoing fire marshal instead of hiring a fire inspector that would have needed more supervision.
Ramsey lost its last fire marshal —Matt Kohner — to the city of Fridley in September. He was responsible for ensuring that state fire codes are met for new construction, but he also was charged with re-inspections of existing commercial and industrial buildings, and public education including visits to schools and tours of the stations.
“I view this position as a supplier of one of the essential services that we provide,” Fire Chief Dean Kapler said. “It isn’t the running down the roads with the lights and sirens. It’s specifically designed to prevent that kind of thing. We’re putting effort up front so we don’t have to be responding as much to our citizens’ loses.”
Kapler wanted a deputy fire chief so Kohner’s previous duties could be handled and a succession plan be in place when Kapler retires, but the council did not want to hire someone who could have had a $91,065 to $100,655 impact on the budget compared with the fire marshal range of $85,065 to $93,848. Human Resources Manager Colleen Lasher said these figures include wages and benefits.
There was a debate over whether the city could get by with a fire inspector, which would have had an $82,997 to $91,602 impact on the budget.
Ramsey has had two different fire marshals, but not consecutively, according to Lasher. Jerry Streich was originally hired as a building official and fire inspector, but ultimately became the city’s fire marshal before he left in 2008 to become the Centennial Fire District chief.
Kohner was subsequently hired by Ramsey as a fire inspector, but was reclassified as a fire marshal at the beginning of 2011, Lasher said.
He was at the top of the pay-scale for a fire marshal when he left for Fridley. Including a potential 2 percent cost of living increase for 2014 as well as all the benefits, Kohner would have had a $102,988 impact on next year’s budget, Lasher said.
Councilmembers Randy Backous and Jason Tossey leaned toward hiring a fire inspector to save taxpayers money at a time when Ramsey is trying to solve a long-term roads maintenance funding problem.
“We can’t keep asking people to dish out money. They’re hurting, too,” Tossey said.
Backous ultimately abstained because he was “on the fence.”
Tossey was the only councilmember to vote no, but he said in a phone interview the next day that he was still “hemming and hawing” over the vote.
Mayor Sarah Strommen and four other councilmembers approved hiring the fire marshal.
“When you get down to option of hiring a fire marshal versus a fire inspector who may transition to a fire marshal, your cost differential is very minor at that point,” Strommen said. “You’re talking a couple of thousand bucks.”
Kapler said a building official works with the fire department in reviewing building plan proposals. A fire inspector does not have the authority to make decisions on correcting fire code issues. If questions crop up, an inspector must talk to the fire chief. A fire marshal has the certification to make these decisions.
Strommen said this means less quality service and the cost savings could go away.
“In the end I think it will cost us more in terms of good will to our businesses and cost us in the time Chief Kapler has to spend supervising and making decisions,” she said.
Councilmember Mark Kuzma said there also is an administrative cost savings for not having to spend time to re-draft job descriptions and there is the possibility the city would have to outsource inspection services if a city inspector could not handle all the duties.
“I just felt it would be easier to not have to deal with all that other stuff,” he said.
Backous said one of the city’s main functions is public safety, but he hears from residents who are struggling and questioning why their taxes go up while their valuations decrease. He said people need to understand that “we still have roads to keep up and homes to protect and citizens to protect.”
“This is one of those areas that’s hard to say no to, but I’m wondering if the timing isn’t right and that’s what I’m struggling with,” he said. “Perhaps we could fill that need with an outside inspector, someone we wouldn’t have to have on the payroll until hopefully times get better very, very soon.”
Councilmember Jill Johns said she was not struggling with this decision because the only other full-time position the Ramsey Fire Department has is the fire chief. Its approximately 50 firefighters are paid on-call volunteers.
“It just seems to be you need to have full time position,” Johns said. “To talk about outsourcing and bringing someone in on a temporary basis just doesn’t make sense.”
Not every community has a fire marshal. It really depends on a council’s willingness to fund the position and the size of the community and amount of commercial and industrial development often play a role in the decision, according to Andover Fire Chief Dan Winkel.
Winkel had fire code inspections as well as administrative duties on his plate when the city of Andover hired him to be its fire chief in 1995. Seeing Robbie Bartholomew hired as fire marshal about five years later was a welcome sight because Andover was in the midst of a building boom.
Winkel said he is not always able to keep up to date on every state fire code change like a fire marshal can, and understanding what is needed for a building’s fire sprinkler system is a complex calculation that requires a lot of training.
The most important task of a fire marshal are the re-inspections. Bartholomew rotates through the city each year to make sure current fire codes are being met by businesses such as having working sprinklers, enough fire extinguishers, not blocking exits and so on.
“Once the new building has been built it isn’t the responsibility of the building official to make sure they are up to code for the rest of the life of that building. It is the fire marshal that needs to make sure codes are adhered to,” Winkel said.
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