Saugatuck Township's Proposed Fire Code Revision Controversy Is Expected To Cost Taxpayers Big $$$
Saugatuck Township residents will soon be footing the bill for thousands of dollars in expected attorney fees as some township government officials seek to rewrite and adopt a new set of local fire codes for the Saugatuck Township District Fire District.
Also anticipating similar attorney fee expenditures are Saugatuck and Douglas officials, both of which have been asked by the township to have their attorneys and/or respective government officials meet with their outside attorney to discuss issues surrounding the proposed township fire code revisions.
That request comes amid many questions by the two city governments, many township residents , local firefighters and fire department officials who are wondering why the local Fire Codes - which have been in place for years - even need to be revised at all.
Those expected legal costs are in addition to personnel and legal fees already generated by the Saugatuck Township Fire District which is responding to township officials’ request to begin to review those proposed fire code revisions which they had no hand in developing.
According to an email message penned by Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik to local Fire Board members and Saugatuck city officials dated May 8, 2017 and obtained by The Local Observer through a Freedom of Information Act request:
“The costs to taxpayers of the Saugatuck Township Fire District, directly related to the Township and IFC (International Fire Codes which the local Fire Codes are based on) issues, are $5,609.00 as of May 8, 2017 to date.
Personnel labor = $3,086.50
Attorney fees = $2,522.50
Total = $5,609.00
“This does not include Fire Board Chair, or Fire Board time spent on this.
“I would imagine Township has exceeded our costs with this control campaign. I struggle to justify spending one more tax dollar on this,” wrote a perplexed Chief Janik who believes any local Fire Code revisions are unneeded.
And those legal costs are now expected to soar even higher as township officials have hired a top - and expensive - Grand Rapids’ attorney named Scott Smith of the law firm Dickinson Wright who specializes in municipal law, to represent them in this ongoing issue over the proposed local Fire Code revisions.
“Instead of the townshp and city officials just sitting down to discuss all this (proposed Fire Code revisions) as should have been done in the first place, now the township has brought in this expensive attorney…and now that means we (cities of Saugatuck & Douglas) need legal representation as well and it is simply going to cost a lot of taxpayers’ money to deal with all this,” said Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier.
“I don’t even know the reason why we need to revise the local Fire Codes at all as they’ve worked well for everyone in the past. I’m not quite sure what’s going on (over at the township),” he added.
The decision to look at revising the local Fire Codes is the brainchild of Saugatuck Township Clerk Brad Rudich and Township Manager Aaron Sheridan. Both Rudich and Sheridan secretly began work on revising the codes earlier this year without first notifying the two cities’ officials, township residents or even members of their own Saugatuck Township Board, even though all would be both financially and legally impacted by any local Fire Code changes.
Janik, Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier and Douglas government officials confirm they were never notified by Rudich or Sheridan about the “secret plan by the two township officials” to rewrite the local Fire Codes.
And it was only after Rudich unsuccessfully tried to get the Saugatuck Township Board - of which he is a member - to vote on passing his local Fire Code revisions as required by township law despite no previous notice to township residents, and after a tumultuous township board meeting attended by angry fire department employees concerned about the safety issues and concerns such unilateral and unvetted Fire Code changes would bring about - did the majority of the Township Board members agree to postpone a vote on the issue and asked that all three governmental bodies meet to review and discuss the proposed changes.
So far, Rudich has only offered what he calls the need to streamline the Fire Codes and make them less onerous for township residents and developers, some of whom have criticized Janik and local fire inspectors for insisting on various safety equipment and safety related expenditures before approving their building requests.
“It should be all about the public’s safety…and not a developer’s bottom line and profits,” says Janik.
A major stumbling block - and point of serious disagreement between Rudich/Sheridan and fire department and some city officials - is the attempt to cut the fire deparment out of the township’s building code decisions and put them in the hands of Township Zoning Administrator and Planner Steve Kushion.
Both local fire department and Saugatuck and Douglas city officials point out - and his resume shows - Kushion only holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography with only an “emphasis” on city and regional planning from Grand Valley State University - and holds no fire inspection certifications at all that would make him state-certified to render decisions about what developers need to incorporate in their development and building plans to ensure the fire safety of homeowners and residents.
Additionally, Saugatuck officials say Kushion was previously employed as a zoning administrator for the city for only a short period of time when he left saying he was “overwhelmed” with handling decisions on the former McClendon property’s proposed building plans - the very same development project now taken over by Cottage Home, the Holland-based developer run by president Brian Bosgraaf with financial investors Jeff Padnos, owner of Padnos Iron and Metal Co., and his wife Peg.
This is the same development project which Kushion - who now works for Saugatuck Township - is having to deal with and whom Rudich and Sheridan now want to handle all building code decisions, including fire code and fire safety rules and regs issues despite his lack of any fire inspection/rules certifications.
Kushion says he feels he is qualified to handle the township’s major development project run by Cottage Homes and take on the major decisions regarding fire safety and equipment decisions on behalf of the township.
Why are Rudich and Sheridan so anxious to cut the fire department (including the fire chief and his inspectors) out of the development/building approval process?
Some officials from both cities, the fire department and township residents are raising just that question, especially when they say what is at stake is residents’ safety when it comes to making sure developers follow stringent local Fire Code requirements/ordinances when constructing homes and other buildings.
“I have no idea why (Rudich and Sheridan) started this whole Fire Code revision thing…but cutting out the fire department from the (developers/builders) review process is not in the best interests of public safety, that I can guarantee you,” said Saugatuck City Councilwoman and Fire Board Chair Jane Verplank.
Fellow Saugatuck City Councilman Mark Bekken, during an earlier city council meeting, also expressed concern that both cities and the township’s insurance coverage rates could also increase significantly if the township’s efforts to revise or even do away with the local Fire Codes is successful.
A municipality’s insurance rates - which are paid for with taxpayers’ money - are determined in part by its level of acceptance of local Fire Codes which are based on the International Fire Codes and are put in place to ensure public safety.