Efforts By Saugatuck Township To Change Fire Code Rules Poses Both Safety & Financial Problems
The City of Saugatuck has “skin in the game” regarding Saugatuck Township’s proposal to change the fire codes regulating fire prevention and protection because it could, depending on a number of factors, dramatically increase the home insurance rates of Saugatuck taxpayers, city officials discussed at Monday’s meeting.
City officials say they recognize that Saugatuck Township, or any other municipal member of the fire district, can legally adopt or ignore any section of the International Fire Code which prescribes nationally recognized minimum requirement standards for protecting life and property related to fire hazards.
However, the fire code, which is also associated with some building codes, was adopted by all members of the Saugatuck Township Fire District—Saugatuck Township, Douglas and Saugatuck—in uniformity and in its entirety.
“If there are changes here (in only one specific municipality), that results in a reaction over here,” said Saugatuck City Council Member Jane Verplank, who is also Board Chair of the Saugatuck Township Fire District.
“These are changes (Saugatuck Township officials) aren’t really qualified to make,” she added.
If Saugatuck Township proceeds to discontinue acceptance of some or all of the International Fire Code, the ramifications could include higher insurance rates for homeowners if the changes means a diminishing of community risk reduction which, in turn, would affect the area’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) ratings.
The ISO, funded by the insurance industry, determines insurance rates based on several fire safety features.
The higher an ISO rating assigned to a municipalty, the more expensive homeowners insurance will be, according to Saugatuck City Council Member Mark Bekken, who owns the independent insurance agency, Saugatuck Harbor Insurance.
The ISO rating is currently a “5” across the entire fire district, which includes the township and the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas. However, changes to the fire code could have a negative impact, with township taxpayers being most at risk since some homes there are far removed from any firefighting water sources, i.e., fire hydrants.
“It (possible township changes to the International Fire Code) has the potential to increase the insurance rates in the township considerably,” said Bekken.
“I am reluctant to provide a dollar figure, but once they (the ISO) make a decision, you’re locked into that for three to five years.”
Echoing fire district personnel criticism that the township acted unilaterally, Verplank said, “They (township officials) didn’t engage the fire district members at all (on their proposed changes to the International Fire Code) until we found out they were doing it.”
Last Wednesday, township officials, in a 3-to-2 roll call vote, tabled the proposed fire code amendments, citing the need to first hold talks with fire personnel.
This happened only after receiving a barrage of concerns and criticism on the part of fire district personnel and some property owners, contending the changes constituted a compromise to public safety, firefighters and emergency responders and that the township was acting unilaterally and in disregard to the potential financial and safety interests of all area residents.
As to re-enforce that action, Saugatuck City Council on Monday announced it will reach out to the township and call on their counterparts to hold off on any modifications to the fire code until they thoroughly discuss it with the Saugatuck Township Fire District, the fire board, and the other member municipalities of the fire district, Saugatuck and Douglas cities.
In what seems to be a power play between the two entities, some of the township’s proposed amendments includes deletions of sections that limit or restrict the fire code official’s authority, according to fire department officials, (i.e. deletion of sections 106.2, 106.3, among a number of other proposed amendments.)
One Saugatuck Township resident who requested not to be identified citing a fear of reprisals by Township Manager Aaron Sheridan and Township Clerk Brad Rudich, said he is “astonished at the arrogance and stupidity of our township officials.
“As usual, there has been little, if any, communication with Saugatuck Township residents about the reasons behind their quietly and secretly trying to change our fire codes,” said the long-time township resident.
“It’s becoming quite clear to many residents here that there is a growing mentality among some of our township officials that they can do whatever they want and the public be damned.
“Their recent actions in this case, and on other recent issues, are either ego-driven or just plain ridiculous…and this has to stop,” he added.
“They should know that their actions are felt by many taxpayers and voters here to be out of sinc with what we want our government to do…and many of us are talking about a wholesale change in township leadership when voting time comes around. They are really pissing people off.”
Among the issues he, and others have shared with The Local Observer that township officials have been “way off base” on and “just appearing to be an in-house power play with little or no input sought from the taxpayers”, include recent decisions to join in the creation of a bike trail and their pushing to continue a recycling program “that benefited no one but Allegan County officials that the majority of township residents voted down twice.
“There’s an arrogance in that office (township) that needs to be addressed,” said another resident.