Changing fire inspection in Minneapolis


The Minneapolis City Council is scheduled to vote May 28 on recommended changes on how building inspections are performed in Minneapolis. (PDF of committee staff recommendations here.) The proposal before the council was made by staff, based on a report by the City’s Fire Department and the Department of Regulatory Services, which was presented to the Minneapolis City Council on Monday morning, May 24 to mixed reviews. 

The central point of the plan is a new tiered system of inspections, which requires that properties with a history of code violations will be inspected more frequently than those with good landlords who maintain their properties and keep them in code.

“We will inspect troubled properties once a year and others every two to three years,” said Regulatory Services head Rocco Forte. “We needed to reward good landlords.”

If passed, the plan is scheduled to begin in April of next year, as soon as inspectors cycle through the current list of properties.


A short history of Minneapoois fire inspection system

A joint proposal recommending changes in how the city inspects rental properties, compiled by the Minneapolis Fire Department and the Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services and Emergency Preparedness, is now being fine-tuned before it is adopted by the city. The proposal was created in response to a public criticism after a fire in a building that had not been inspected burned down, killing six people.

The current system is based on a 2004 agreement (implemented in 2005), in which the Minneapolis Fire Department took over from Regulatory Services the responsibility for inspecting all buildings with four or more apartment units, as well as mixed use buildings – those containing both commercial and residential space – in exchange for more than $800,000, used to pay for firefighter jobs.

According to Matthew Laible, communications manager for the City of Minneapolis, before the change to the current system, city inspectors estimated that it would take at least 15 years to cycle through all the buildings in Minneapolis. Now, the cycle is down to five years, but the fire department is still behind schedule. Last year, the fire department’s responsibilities increased again, to include commercial properties.

Since 2005, the Fire Department has inspected almost 90 percent of nearly 3000 properties, with only about 270 left before the cycle begins again. The fatal fire was at one of the properties yet to be inspected.

Currently, according to Councilmember John Quincy, the Minneapolis Fire Department has only one inspector dedicated to housing inspections as well as three others who do complaint-based residential inspections as part of their inspection duties. Fire captains at each fire house also conduct inspections.

The proposal came in response to widespread criticism of the inspection process after an April fire at 3001 Lake St. destroyed McMahon’s Pub and killed six people who were staying in apartments on the second floor of the building. The fatal fire was one of 270 properties on a list to be inspected. The cause of the fire was never determined.

Criticism of the new plan has come from members of the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association, from the Tenants Union, and from some members of the City Council.

The process, warned council member John Quincy, is going to be politically sensitive. “The changes may not come until the middle of the year.  I just want to make sure we’re protecting the people who are renting.”

“Yes, it’s going through and probably without opposition,” predicted Quincy. “There’s been a lot of discussion on this and there’ll probably be some amendments attached to make it understood that this will be of benefit to the city. Various people want to make sure of the intent of this. There was a sense that we were throwing the fire department under the bus and giving too much power to others.”

Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden asked that a more detailed report be presented to the full City Council before it comes up for a vote on Friday. “We don’t want something short term that hobbles the process in the long term,” she said.

“The Fire Department took over the responsibilities (from Regulatory Services in 2005) with the idea that they’d be able to generate funding,” Quincy said, “but I’m confident that the solution will not cost fire fighter jobs.” The fire department receives more than $800,000 annually for inspections of all mixed-use buildings – those containing both commercial and residential space – and apartment building with four or more units.

Under the new proposal, the two departments would also work together to coordinate annual inspection training programs, slated to begin in the fall, for both firefighters and civilian inspectors, as well as employee coaching and progressive discipline. Since 2005, only one fire fighter had been disciplined. During the same time period, Regulatory Services disciplined inspectors 56 times.

Administration of the inspection process would be shifted to the Regulatory Services while firefighters would continue to be responsible for the actual inspections of mixed-used and rental buildings with four or more units, as well as commercial buildings. Fire Prevention Bureau inspections would be transferred to Regulatory Services.

While citations for non-compliance bring revenue to the fire department, both Forte and Fire Chief Alex Jackson claim that the dollars is not what will drive the inspection process.  “Our main focus is compliance,” said Forte.

Minnesota Tenants’ Union opposition

Peter Brown, Secretary of the Minnesota Tenants’ Union is asking for a public hearing on the proposal before it’s implemented and issued a highly critical eight page point-by-point commentary directed to the City Council.

“The people most affected by the administration of the Housing Maintenance Code deserve to be heard before, not after, you act on the recommendations,” the Tenant Union report stated. ‘It is not conceivable to us that members of the two City Council committees currently having oversight of these two departments, would adopt their self-perpetuating recommendations two days after receiving their report.”

Brown said that he doubts the willingness of the two department heads to carry out a real fix to the situation that does not make retention of fire department jobs a main priority. He calls the new proposal a conflict of interest.

 “The Report provides no way to assess whether it’s getting its money’s worth for $800,000 or whether some changes need to be made in this regard,” he said.

“The joint report from Regulatory Service and the Fire Department cut a deal in 2004,” said Brown. “The arrangement to give the fire department money to do inspections is up for review and we’re struggling to be part of that review. The inspection process is a human rights issue.”

Firefighters are “pissed off”

Members of the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association were at Monday’s City Council meeting to express their concerns about the new proposal and what they feel is unfair criticism of the fire department and their captain.

Association President Charles Rucker said that morale is down in the firehouses since the proposal was made public. “People are pissed off,” he said. “We’re on the front lines. We’re doing everything, but we’re not getting credit for it.”

“This fire was one of the worst tragedies in the city in years,” said Rucker. “We almost lost a few fighters in that fire. We go in to save people, but when we can’t, we get blamed. Two weeks before, there was a fire in Northeast where the fire department saved a man and it didn’t even get into the paper.”

Rucker said that many in his organization are particularly upset at comments made by Councilmember Gary Schiff, in whose ward the fatal fire took place. Schiff had questioned Chief Jackson’s ability to administer the program and, Rucker said, many in the department viewed the statements as racially motivated. “The whole department was offended.  People are playing political games to advance themselves,” he said.

“We’re all behind Chief Jackson,” said Fire Captain Timothy Baynard, who is a member of the Association and who does housing inspections as part of his duties. “Now, all of a sudden, Jackson is the bad guy. If he was the problem, why did he get a unanimous confirmation from the City Council two months ago?”