City denies appeal over safety inspection certificates

Earlier this week, the owner of an apartment building at 4208 Central Ave. appealed to the City Commission in a special meeting, arguing that he shouldn’t have to pay the fee for a Safety Inspection Certificate since the property is apartments and not a business location.

In May, officials with the prevention bureau at Great Falls Fire Rescue had notified the owner, Stephen Gillespie, that his SIC had expired and his property was currently in violation of city code.

Gillespie said that he thought the SIC was a business license and said he didn’t need one since the property is an apartment building and not an active business. But, the SIC is not a business license and the city does not have any business license program, but all businesses in Great Falls are required to have annual SICs.

“People assume it’s a business license,” Fire Chief Steve Hester told The Electric.

“Because they have to have one to open a business,” said Dirk Johnson, city fire marshal. “So people think it’s a business license, but it’s not.”

The commission voted unanimously to deny Gillespie’s appeal, though he has the option to take his appeal to district court.

Under the city code, every business in a commercial structure and apartments with more than three units need those certificates.

SICs are designed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the community, according to city code. The safety inspections look to make sure the building complies with all fire and building codes, which includes proper exits, plumbing, electrical work, alarms and sprinklers. The fee structure accompanying the code was adopted by the commission in 2007. 

The application forms also include a page for contact information and other information about the business, such as if it has a fire alarm or stores hazardous material. That gives the fire department the information needed to gain access to the building in case of a fire without necessarily having to break windows or doors to get inside. It also gives firefighters information that helps them protect themselves and the public in case of emergencies. Firefighters also generally do inspections in their districts, so when they respond to an incident at a building they’ve inspected, they have a better idea of the conditions they’ll find inside.

In the case of Gillespie’s property on Central Avenue, he doesn’t need an SIC for the individual apartments, but he does need one for the common access area.

The SIC fees are assessed by square footage and Gillespie’s fee for renewing his SIC is $55.

The fee for a new SIC is based on square footage SICs must be renewed annually by Dec. 31 for a smaller fee, which is also based on square footage. For tardy renewals, the city can add a $15 late fee and for continued lapses, the city can deactivate the SIC and the business has to start the process over and pay higher fees.

The municipal code allows officials to assess a $15-per-day late fee for every day the renewal is late, but GFFR officials said they generally don’t impose that fine and instead try to work with businesses to resolve the issue.

Under the code, businesses with multiple locations need SICs for each location, unless they’re adjacent with access between the locations.

When businesses sell, the owners should apply for a SIC transfer, using the same form as the initial application, for a $30 fee. If a business moves a new location, the new space needs a new SIC.

In cases where multiple businesses have offices in the same building, each sole proprietor needs an SIC for their office and the property owner is responsible for the SIC for common areas.

SIC applications are available at GFFR, the Civic Center and the city website.