Decreased staffing and reduced city funding has made it challenging for the Santa Maria Fire Department to complete yearly fire inspections the state recommends for certain sites, according to officials.

Due to COVID-19 budget cuts affecting most city departments, the Fire Department is operating without the additional fire marshal and fire prevention officer in place during past years, leaving fewer personnel to handle a growing amount of work. 

"As much as the pandemic affected a lot of things, it did not impact growth," interim Fire Chief Todd Tuggle said. "We are trying to keep up …  it’s just hard work and it’s not sustainable." 

Tuggle said the department has been fulfilling all state-mandated inspections, which include the annual inspections of sprinkler systems, fire alarms and fire suppression systems in apartments, schools, hotels and motels. 

However, the department has fallen behind on completing recommended annual inspections of some businesses, assembly areas like event centers or concert halls, and hazardous material storage sites for chemicals and soil. 

"In the past year as I've been here, we have not had staff inspect those facilities. When staffing allows, we will resume those inspections," Tuggle said.

Along with less staff, City Manager Jason Stilwell said part of the issue is the lack of General Fund revenue to cover Fire Department services. However, the city is currently considering a new user fee system that would make it easier to cover such services. 

According to city financial data from the 2019-20 fiscal year, 70% of the cost for fire inspections is covered by the department's General Fund dollars, while 30% is covered by the customer. Due to decreased city revenue, partially from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of the funding for the service is not guaranteed. 

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"There are certain inspection requirements mandated by the state that we don’t have the fee fully covering. The frequency of the inspections are impacted by these fees being so low," Stilwell said. 

To combat ongoing revenue losses, officials now are considering shifting 100% of certain service costs across departments to the customer, rather than sharing the cost with the city, a system that could go into place by the summer. 

For the Fire Department, fire inspections would be fully covered by building managers and owners requesting the service, freeing up General Fund dollars to be used for additional personnel. 

"As we can shift the cost of those inspections … over to the user, it allows us to free up General Fund dollars to staff fire engines or cover capital costs," Tuggle said.

The interim fire chief added that the department also outsources some inspection responsibilities, such as sprinklers and kitchen hoods, to third-party inspectors. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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