Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Janik Warns Township Officials He Will Not Risk People's Safety By Accepting Township's Proposed Fire Code Changes; Saugatuck & Douglas Officials Demand Say In Any Changes
At A special workshop meeting of the Saugatuck Township Fire District Board with Saugatuck Township officials this week, Saugatuck Fire Chief Greg Janik said he would not compromise at all on some township-proposed amendments regulating fire codes, but is open to the idea of forming a special committee—with members representing all the district’s municipalities— to address appeals to cost recovery.
Cost recovery deals with the fire department and/or the township charging homeowners who receive related fire/township services for recovery costs when it is determined the situation was caused due to the homeowner violating fire/township ordinances or rules and regulations.
The proposed changes being sought by township officials would essentially take away fire-related inspections and cost-recovery authority responsibilities from the fire department and put them in the control of the township’s building inspector and zoning administrator.
Participants at Monday’s workshop conceded it was less heated than previous meetings between the differing parties, and both expressed that they made some headway when it came to some elements of the township’s proposed changes to its ordinance regulating fire apparatus access on private roads and driveways.
The fire board and township officials resolved that the issue of cost-recovery still needs to be further discussed.
Several times during the meeting Township Zoning Administrator Steve Kushion appeared angry at the responses he was hearing from Janik and some attendees.
For example, there were some tense moments at the meeting, including when Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier joined in on the discussion.
“For the fire chief (Janik) to have to get permission from the township zoning administrator (when the fire department wants to issue a cost recovery bill), it’s ridiculous,” said Harrier.
He echoed the concerns of some Fire Board members, fire personnel and members of the public that the township move to rewrite the long-standing fire codes and change its cost-recover ordinance was essentially an attempt by the township to micromanage the fire department and dilute its authority, the kind of authority that the fire department has the expertise and professionally responsible for carrying out.
“I don’t want the (township) zoning administrator or the city manager (from any fire district municipality to be telling the fire chief what to do,” said Harrier.
Harrier’s comment came in response to township officials—including the township representatives on the fire board, Erik Beckman and Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIIwaine—offering varied justifications for the proposed policy changes regarding cost-recovery.
“This (proposed township policy) defines what could be billable,” said Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIIwaine, referring to the township’s desire to have more control and a better understanding of what the fire department is issuing fees for, thereby addressing what he called liability and possible legal ramifications.
Township officials other big justification for the proposed policy/ordinance changes is that a cost-recovery policy would provide both “teeth” for cost-recovery efforts to help the fire department recoup costs from township residents and builders (i.e., a lien on a property) as well as an “appeal” process available for township residents and builders fighting a fire department bill.
“If I or a (township) taxpayer want to appeal a fee, we can appeal to the township board,” said Saugatuck Township Zoning Administrator Steve Kushion.
Fire Chief Janik responded by saying, “It should be appealed to the Saugatuck Township Fire Board (if it’s a fire-related response issue). This is a township Fire Board thing, not a township thing.”
What Janik finds so “embellished” on the part of township officials is that the cost recovery efforts affecting just the township in the last few years, 2014—2016, has been very low, totaling less than .83 percent of all cost recovery issuances by the fire district.
As for the township’s proposed amendments to the International Fire Code, Janik said he would not compromise on some sections the township was proposing to completely eliminate (i.e., section 105.1 and section 106.1) because they would essentially take all power and authority from the fire department to review construction plans and annual inspections on, for example, hotels and other commercial properties.
That authority, if the proposed township changes were adopted, would be given to township officials, who lack the expertise, certification and experience to perform such tasks, according to a review of the township officials’ educational and professional backgrounds.
“If you don’t take it out (the proposed elimination of section 106.1), we have a real problem,” Janik said, noting he was concerned about the safety of visitors, residents and building owners if the township proposal was adopted.
Township officials’ proposed changes to the area’s fire codes and cost-recovery ordinances have been controversial since it was discovered that Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Township Manager Aaron Sheridan secretly began rewriting them earlier this year without informing the fire chief or his staff, other township officials or the public.
Also throwing gas on the fire was Rudich’s and Sheridan’s attempt to rush through a vote by the township board to adopt their changes without input by the fire department officials or the public.
The only explanation so far publicly stated by Rudich and Sheridan regarding their proposed changes to the fire code/cost-recovery ordinances is that they received a couple of complaints from developers.
Janik - along with some fire department personnel, Saugatuck and Douglas city officials and some members of the public - say it appears to them and others that, at the very least, Rudich and Sheridan and the township board are simply on some kind of mission to take control of everything and everyone they deal with.
“It’s quite apparent the township wants to have sole authority over fire department inspections/requirement decisions and/or waiving any fees imposed by the fire department against developers or residents for services over-and-above those usually required, noted Janik.
When fire officials and fire personnel and members of the public showed up at a recent township board meeting and angrily protested the move by Rudich/Sheridan to push through their unilateral ordiance/policy changes, the township board retreated and agreed to hold talks with the fire chief and his staff to try and work things out. Only Rudich and Township
However, after thousands of dollars in legal fees have been spent of taxpayers’ money to try and come to some agreement between the township and fire department officials, sparked by the township’s decision to try and unilaterly change the fire code and cost-recovery ordinances, officials from both sides still have not come to any final agreement.
Fire Chief Janik said while he met with and discussed alternatives to the proposed township changes in good faith, the process repeatedly resulted in the township leaders verbally agreeing to one thing, and then sending written proposed agreements that essentially incorporated little or none of the changes they both had earlier agreed to.
“How do you trust people who do that?’ asked an outwardly perplexed and perturbed fire chief.
“This is about people’s safety. That should be the overriding concern here. But it appears to be more about (some township officials) control issues and egos. But I will not ever go along with any decision that I feel jeopardizes the public’s safety - and some of the changes the township wants to make puts people’s lives at risk and that is not acceptable.”
Janik also questioned why the township all of a sudden this year - with a major development of the former McClendon property under way - wanted to put all the authority of fire inspection decisions and cost-recovery efforts under their control.
“I keep asking myself why are they doing all this now and why are they costing the (taxpayers) all this money in legal fees that we are both having to pay to deal with all this when everything was working fine for decades?” said Janik. “It just doesn’t make sense. Everyone, especially the taxpayers, need to ask why as well.”
The township official’s unilateral move has also sparked concern by Saugatuck and Douglas officials.
Both cities recently passed resolutions saying that since the fire district includes both their municipalities and any police/ordinance change impacts their residents, they want to be included in any discussions on the matter.
“This should not be the township dictating (policy/ordinance) changes that affect our residents without the input of our respective governments participating in the fire district ,” said Harrier.
Any of the three fire district members - Saugatuck, Douglas or Saugatuck Township - can, in fact, legally modify the fire code as they please for their own residents/municipality.
However, as critics have argued, the International Fire Code, has been adopted by all members of the local fire district and has proven over the years to be an effective and almost universally accepted set of protective rules and policies for city and township governments in Michigan and across the U.S.
The township’s proposed amendments - if adopted by the township - now means a different set of rules the fire department would have to follow for just the township. Also, diluting or eliminating any aspect of the International Fire Codes also means taxpayers would have to foot the bill for expected increases in their respective governments’ insurance costs.
In their defense, township officials have argued that the township’s zoning and property characteristics are much different than the cities, (i.e., the township has a lot of homes with very long driveways) and fire inspection and cost-recovery rules/policies may need to be different.