By Scott Sullivan
A split Saugatuck Township board approved changing fire cost-recovery policies Aug. 2 over objections by Saugatuck Township Fire District partners Douglas and Saugatuck cities plus department leaders.
Clerk Brad Rudich, treasurer Lori Babinski and trustee Doug Lane voted for the amendment — six months in the making and disputed by fire staff throughout the process.
Supervisor Jon Phillips and trustee Roy McIlwaine, both opposed, were voted down 3-2.
Since January township officials — citing some area builders who have complained the department’s interpretation and enforcement of the International Fire Code has been overreaching — have proposed some of those powers be shifted to zoning administrator Steve Kushion.
Fire Chief Greg Janik has argued the IFC exists to protect public and firefighters’ safety and the department enforces it impartially. “Lives are at stake,” he said.
The Aug. 2 vote followed a July 24 special fire board meeting at which at least some accord was reached between Janik and township officials, Phillips and McIlwaine included.
At that session both sides gave their blessing to a township ordinance amendment regulating fire apparatus access on private roads and driveways serving four or fewer homes. The township board approved that one 5-0 Aug. 2. Both amendments are reproduced in full elsewhere in this issue.
At the July 24 fire board special session, Kushion agreed to strike two proposed code enforcement sections — one in which the fire code official would review proposed construction plans only on request of the township building official, the other requiring the fire code official to obtain the township building inspector’s permission to inspect a building — after Janik said they were unacceptable. “I won’t do this,” the fire chief said.
The township’s proposed efforts to more clearly define what assessable costs are — i.e. for “extraordinary incidents” outside what district residents might expect for their fire-district taxes — remained unresolved that evening.
Janik called a July 31 meeting of all three district partners’ managers and zoning administrators to discuss cost recovery prior to the township’s scheduled Aug. 2 board vote on the matter.
Kushion, on a pre-scheduled family vacation, could not attend. Sheridan, the lone township official present, taped the session “only to defend myself from past false and unattributed claims made against me in another newspaper,” he told The Commercial Record.
He had Babinski’s and Rudich’s approvals beforehand in doing so, Sheridan said. Lane’s came later. Others who attended — Janik, Douglas and Saugatuck city managers Bill LeFevere and Kirk Harrier plus respective ZAs Lisa Imus and Cindy Osman — weren’t informed beforehand of the recording. Several objected upon learning afterwards.
In the recording, obtained through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, Harrier claimed since the district began cost-recovery three years, no charges have been appealed.
Sheridan countered that fewer than half the billed charges had yielded payments; a process defining what could be assessed would give member governments grounds to collect on tax bills.
Janik noted descriptions of incidents, such as water rescues, were poorly worded in the amendment if they appeared at all.
“Why change an ordinance when there’s no problem with it?” asked Harrier. LeFevere also objected to the proposal. Little accord was reached.
Douglas architect Charles Carlson Aug. 2 voiced concerns shared by some township board members and echoed by certain builders.
“As a licensed architect, my job is first to protect the health and safety of my clients,” said Carlson. “I feel the fire code’s design requirements are a little excessive.
“The cities are one thing. The township — which comprises 57.7 percent of the tri-community’s population (per the 2010 U.S. Census) and 85.3 percent of its land area — is a different animal,” he continued, with room for many more deep-lot developments.
“I had one client in the township shot down by the fire department when it demanded a turnaround and widened driveway. He didn’t want to tear out the trees on his entryway and lose his front lawn,” said Carlson.
“People are saying they’re not going to build here.”
The revised private roads and driveways ordinance might address some of Carlson’s concerns. Cost recovery? That was the evening’s flash point.
“As a zoning administrator with 32 years of experience,” said Osman, “I do not feel that in any way I am qualified to pass judgment on how the cost recovery process is done by the fire department.
“There is an appeal process in the existing ordinance to address concerns that citizens may have,” she went on. “It is more than adequate to cover any situation.”
“The ordinance changes being proposed by Saugatuck Township,” said Harrier, “will have negative consequences to the other units of government in the fire district. It would not be advisable for any unit of government that is part of a fire district to adopt inconsistent cost-recovery ordinances.”
“I admit I have done a 180 on this,” said township trustee McIlwaine, who had previously supported township reassessments of its fire ordinance.
“I believe the cities have valid objections. I’m not ready to approve an ordinance that will put us in conflict with our partners in a matter that isn’t that big a deal.
“It is not worth a split in a partnership that has been successful for so many years,” he said.
“I think that the three communities should have discussed their concerns when this (township discussion of fire-code changes) started,” said Phillips. “If we don’t work with them, we are setting up a department that’s going to fail.”
“I feel the township is making a huge mistake,” said deputy fire chief and township resident Chris Mantels, “in an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken. I feel many of you (board members) have been misled.
“Ultimately, it will be none of the trustees, nor the township staff, performing fire-prevention duties or fighting fires at 2 a.m.”
After the 3-2 vote on cost recovery, Phillips said he would call a special board meeting to discuss “a disagreement” between himself and the manager.
“I am disappointed with your decision,” said Janik.
“We will work our best to serve citizens despite the setback tonight,” he said.