Commissioner Eloy Rodriguez said, “There has been a lot of concern in the community... about certain things being done by our fire marshal.”
The issues at hand are the fees charged by James Barrie and his carrying of a sidearm while doing routine fire inspections.
“Again, we have had some complaints about fees being charged and weapons being carried on the premises. Businesses, they feel intimidated,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez requested that the court place a moratorium on these inspections until they could iron out the details.
“I have to act in the best of interest of our business community,” Rodriguez said. “I would like to make a motion that we temporarily put a hold on unrequested inspections until we sort things out ourselves.”
County Judge David Silva interjected, “We are not going to limit him or anything like that. I would like to discuss it further...”
“Obviously, we are going to need to do more work on this than we were prepared to do.”
Commissioner Dennis DeWitt proposed that maybe an agreement could be reached with the city in which they could hire Barrie full time and the county could pay the city a portion.
There is a precedent set for such an agreement. The city currently contracts with the county for kitchen inspections. This would be the same theory.
“You and the city would set the policy and the fees,” DeWitt said. As a side note, all but three of the fire inspections have been in the city.
Silva said, “I think we can enter some kind of discussion with the city to see if we can work something out.”
Ultimately, no decision was made, and commissioners are expected to discuss it at their next meeting.
But this doesn’t curtail what one businessman said was a problem.
“The whole point of this is the inspections should not be forced on a business that does not require nor request them,” Armando Musquez, a local photographer, said during the public forum portion of the meeting.
“Some businesses do require these inspections, but the business owners should have the option of whom they want to do these inspections and at what costs.
“If a business agrees to pay the fire marshal his set fee, then that should be the business’ prerogative.”
Barrie said that state code requires him to conduct these inspections and, as a contract employee with the county, he needs to charge the fees to fund his office.
The dispute arises as to whether these inspections are required of all businesses.
Rodriguez, who says the inspections must be requested by businesses, is basing his opinion on the wording of the National Fire Safety Code, which includes wording that these inspections are done “when requested.”
“I stand by my document, and it is my understanding that they aren’t requesting it,” Rodriguez said.
Barrie, on the other hand, bases his opinion that these inspections are required, due to the wording that these inspections “shall” be conducted.
“That is where I get my mandatory requirement,” Barrie said. “Part of my contract states in there I would do all the inspections.”
The fee for these inspections varies.
• Foster care/child care homes is $50.
• Non-hazard occupancies is $75.
• Hazardous occupancies are $100-250.
Barrie said, “As an independent contractor, I am responsible for my own business expenses, taxes and everything from A to Z that I have to pay for — including salary and special projects.”
He added that if the county wished to make him a full-time employee, then commissioners could set the fees.
“If you exhibit financial control or behavioral control over me, then I am an employee... and the county would be responsible to pay my taxes and pay salary,” Barrie said.
“That is something I had discussed with one of the commissioners,” Rodriguez said. “Perhaps we need to hire you as a county employee, and all the money collected would come back to the county, but we are not at that point yet.”
Buddy Hardy, with the Beeville Volunteer Fire Department, reminded commissioners during the public forum the asset they have with Barrie.
“We have a unique opportunity to hire a man with an enormous amount of education for a very nominal fee.
“We should take this opportunity to protect our people, our buildings and the people living and working in those buildings so that they are not subjected to abnormal problems with fire safety, health safety and such as that.”
While a majority of the discussion centered around the fees charged, the presence of the Glock on Barrie’s hip during routine fire inspection wasn’t forgotten.
Rodriguez said, “If it is law enforcement business, I can understand it. If it is fire business, I don’t feel a weapon is necessary.”
Commissioner Carlos Salazar Jr. also chimed in, saying that the sidearm could be construed as intimidating.
“I have a business, and as soon as someone walks in there with a weapon and in uniform like you have on and says, ‘I am here to inspect you,’ I think, ‘Oh my God, what did I do,’” he said. “If you go in their just to purchase bubble gum and soda water, I am happy to see you.”
Barrie said that he has done about 60 inspections so far, and only three businessmen have commented about his weapon.
“Two of those were through the (newspaper), and the third was out of a curiosity,” he said.
Barrie also reminded that he is a commissioned deputy constable in the county and therefore always on duty.
“My going around to these businesses on a daily basis, the chances of me running into something negative happening as far as robbery or any type of disturbance is a lot greater than your average deputy or law enforcement officer in the city.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.