CNMI businesses may have gotten a one-year breather on the 50-cent minimum wage increase this year but they have another expense to contend with—a $500 fire safety code permit that they have to pay within 15 or 30 days after the Commonwealth Fire Division hands them an “application for permit” or face a much steeper fine.
Some businesses told Saipan Tribune yesterday they were warned of a $1,000 fine for non-payment of the permit.
Fire Division personnel have restarted visiting businesses “randomly”—mostly at night—to give them an “application for permit.” Each visit entails anywhere between two to seven fire personnel, businesses said.
“It seems like we’re going to work just to be able to pay that $500. Do they intend to close our business? Because that’s what it looks like to me. This is not fair. This is not funny anymore,” Matthy Orcasitas, owner of a small retail store and barbecue stand in As Lito, told Saipan Tribune.
Orcasitas said their business has been trying hard to save on other costs such as utilities, only to be required to pay an additional $500 for a permit.
“We have been turning off our lights at times just to make ends meet. Asking us to pay $500 is not reasonable,” she added.
A manager of a bar and restaurant in San Jose separately said the $500 fire safety code permit is “outrageous.”
“It’s much more expensive than an alcohol license fee, a building safety permit, or a business license fee combined. How can we survive? We barely make utility payments and building rental,” he said.
The fire safety code permit is required of all businesses—whether it’s a barbecue stand, a retail store, or a hotel.
“What they’re asking us to pay is much more than what we make and would be a huge expense,” an employee at a small barbecue stand separately said yesterday.
Like other businesses interviewed, the barbecue stand employee said the $500 permit is much more than what they pay in building rental, water and business license combined.
Another business owner, Glen Hunter of The Shack in Oleai, separately said the $500 permit is “excessive” and “duplicative” of what the Department of Public Works charges when it issues a certificate of occupancy.
Hunter said the DPW certificate of occupancy is already a permit that shows one’s establishment complies with fire and building safety code, among other things.
“The implementation of the fire safety code regulations is problematic. They go out at night; in our case they visited us at past 9pm. They asked us to go to the CNMI Treasury and pay the $500 permit within 15 days or pay a fine of $1,000,” Hunter said in an interview.
Hunter suggests that this kind of permit should be required when businesses are just about to set up their business or renew their business license.
Another bar and restaurant owner, who asked not to be identified at this time, said the “excessive” fee should not be implemented.
“And I thought the certificate of occupancy that DPW issued already speaks for itself? Why is the government charging us another $500 to say that our business complies with building safety laws?” the manager said.
Because Fire Division personnel makes random visit, he thinks the implementation of the law and its regulations is not fair.
“So if they happen to not inspect a relative or others’ businesses, then those businesses won’t be required to get a $500 permit? That is not fair. What about home catering? What about the roadside vendors?” he said.
The Department of Public Safety’s Commonwealth Fire Division first implemented its regulations that include the $500 fire safety code permit in late 2011 to early 2012.
This was temporarily stopped months later when the then Fitial administration suspended the implementation of regulations.
Tom Manglona, chief of DPS’ Commonwealth Fire Division, said that requiring a fire safety code permit has been a law since 1999, referring to Public Law 11-56, but this has not been fully implemented.
Manglona said that DPS will issue a public statement about the $500 permit either today or the next few days to clarify the issues surrounding the law and the fee, among other things.
“It’s all about saving lives. Don’t you want a business that is safe for everyone to go to? You can’t put a price tag on human life,” Manglona told Saipan Tribune.
He said the $500 fee is only about $42 a month, which he said is a small price compared to the lives that could be saved for having fire code compliant businesses, be it a bar or a restaurant.
Once businesses pay the $500 permit, Fire Division personnel will then inspect their establishments to ensure they comply with fire safety regulations.
Businesses interviewed yesterday said they support the inspections but not the $500 permit that such inspections require.
Manglona said the Fire Division understands businesses’ concerns about the fee, which is why some businesses can ask for a longer time to pay the $500.
‘No to additional fees’
Alex Sablan, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, separately said yesterday that businesses are already paying sufficient taxes to avail of government services such as fire safety code inspections.
“The Fire Division should be doing this under the auspices of their department [DPS] budget, to ensure facilities are safe. $500 is an interesting number. Businesses are already paying taxes. The $500 is a significant and additional amount that businesses have to pay just so the government will do its job; in this case, the Fire Division. We are not diminishing the Fire Division’s role. They play a significant role but the fee $500 is an interesting number,” he said.
Sablan said the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI, is calling on Gov. Eloy S. Inos and the Legislature to help businesses grow instead of punishing them with additional fees.
He said some agencies—OSHA, for example—doesn’t charge businesses when they do inspections.
“But they impose a fine if they find a violation and you didn’t correct it,” Sablan added.
An employee at a barbecue stand said that when Fire Division personnel visited their business, she asked, “Are you kidding? Is it $50 or $500?”
“They told me it’s really $500. We’re having a problem paying that amount. But what can we do? If we don’t pay that, would they shut down our business? I thought the government is supposed to help even small businesses like us?” she said.
‘Correcting a mistake’
Reps. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan) and Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan) separately said yesterday that the House Committee on Commerce will review Public Law 11-56, on which the Fire Division has based its regulations and fire safety code permit.
“We will discuss the issue [today] in the [Commerce] committee meeting. We will review Public Law 11-56 and then meet with the appropriate agencies,” committee chair Villagomez said.
Yumul, for his part, said DPS Fire Division and DPW officials will be called in to see “whether they can work together on how to handle this properly.”
He said in reading PL 11-56, “its intent and what’s going on” are not the same.
“We will help correct this mistake. We have to amend or repeal the law and we want these two agencies to work with us on this,” Yumul said in a phone interview.
He added that the fire safety code law’s intentions are good, but the implementation is not.
Echoing other businesses’ concerns, Yumul said it seems that the DPW certificate of occupancy and the Fire Division’s fire safety code permit have “overlapping” functions or requirements.
“Like I said, we will help address this,” he added.
In early 2012, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce asked the former governor to withdraw and amend the new fire permit fees to truly reflect actual costs associated with “necessary, responsible and valuable fire inspections and permitting” for all CNMI commercial establishments.