To ease the burden on mom and pop establishments, Largo is nixing mandatory fire inspection fees for low-risk facilities like offices, barber shops and markets.
Before, whether they had problems or not, most low-risk businesses had to pay from $35 to $75 for periodic fire inspections.
Tuesday, city commissioners unanimously approved code changes that end those fees. Commissioner Harriet Crozier was absent.
"It just seemed unfair," said Largo Fire Marshal Edward Mullins. "It just didn't seem right at this time."
Low-risk business owners won't be off the hook entirely. If inspectors find safety problems at low-risk buildings on their first visits, business owners won't be penalized, even if businesses need to be re-inspected. But if owners fail to fix problems, they will face fines. If safety issues aren't fixed after that, fines will be steeper. And businesses could be closed until dangerous violations are remedied.
High-risk structures, such as assisted living facilities, day care centers and hospitals, won't get the same break. The state requires annual inspections for most of them. And they tend to be more complex and time consuming, Chief Mike Wallace said.
Two years ago, fire officials said Largo's low-hazard buildings weren't getting enough attention, averaging just one inspection every six years. Largo Fire Rescue aimed to increase inspections to once every couple of years.
To do so, the department beefed up its fire inspection team, hiring four civilian inspectors. And the city began charging low-risk businesses for initial inspections to cover costs of increased inspections.
But the fees never fully covered costs and caused ill will, Mullins said.
Business owners would complain that they hadn't seen inspectors in years and all of a sudden they were getting bills, he said.
And city leaders got an earful, too, Mayor Pat Gerard and Vice Mayor Gigi Arntzen said.
"We're trying to encourage business development," Gerard said. "Why do we want to make them all mad?"
Last year, the city collected about $83,000 in inspection fees.
The department isn't sure how much revenue it will lose. There's no way to determine how many businesses will require additional inspections, fire officials say.
In other action, city commissioners approved changes to its comprehensive plan, which outlines the type of development allowed in each part of the city. The plan includes initiatives to develop stronger neighborhoods, be more environmentally friendly, provide quality services and support the city's long-term land-use goals.