Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Schmoe won't play (probably)

We pull into the parking lot, the crew and I. We note the parking lot has few cars parked in the many spaces, I remember more vehicles parked here the last time we were here. Going up to the door of the first business, we quickly determine that the injection molding business is no longer there, business cards, fliers and other trash is piled up in front of the door; a lock box secured to it.

We go to the back of the building, where the other occupant of this five year old building is located. An open door leads into the lobby, where we are initially greeted by several Dobermans and a German Shepard. Although the dogs can't get to us, they make plenty of noise and announce our presence to the business owner.

After a few moments, the business owner appears. I am surprised how much older he looks since the last time I saw him. Dark bags under his eyes, a multitude of lines on his face and a weary look in his eyes give me the impression of someone who is growing very tired.

I have met the owner twice previously. The first time was when I inspected his business about four years ago. He owns a cabinet installation and finish carpentry company. He is a sub-contractor for numerous builders in our state. The first time I inspected him, his warehouse was full of product, waiting to be installed. The parking lot was filled with cars, a hubub of activity was occurring in the office and on the loading dock.

None of those things are occurring now. No employees are present in the warehouse, only a few women are busy in the office. The dogs make up most of the activity, as our inspection is making them restless. I chat with the business owner as we conduct our inspection. He mentions that three years ago, he had over eighty employees. All but eighteen have been let go. He tells me that he has been in business for years (sorry, I can't remember the figure that he gave me), and that he has never seen it this bad. His nest egg is gone, spent trying to keep his business afloat.

I take all of this in as I inspect his business. I am used to the griping of business owners, I have been doing this a while. In my agency, the operations division conducts fire safety inspections on most commercial occupancies. Many business owners view our prevention efforts as just another intrusion by government into their affairs. I have always understood their plight, I have run a small business and I understand how difficult it is for small business owners.

I know that that is not just a business owner griping. This is a man is is fighting with all he has just to stay in business. If he loses it, he loses everything.

There are a few minor issues that I mention to the business owner. He corrects them on the spot so I don't issue a NCR (non-compliance report). One thing that I don't do is check to make sure he purchased a Business Tax Certificate.

A District Edict came down a few weeks ago, directing us to check for this certificate as we conduct our inspections. In the twenty five years that I have been employed by the Kinda Big F.P.D. I have never been used as a tax collector by proxy, I don't intend to be used as one now.

The collection of this tax has nothing to do with the preservation of life or property. Us checking to insure compliance is an idea hatched by a bean counter in the county finance department and is solely a method to generate additional revenue.

I have no problem enforcing the Fire Code or the County Code as it applies to fire / life safety. I try to develop a rapport with the business owners in my district. I count on them to be prudent when it comes to fire safety. I try to educate them on the various hazards that we come across. A fire in their business is not good for them nor is it good for us.That isn't what this is about. This is about money.

Yesterday, we are again doing inspections. I meet a man named Bill. Bill runs a very small business that buys a product in bulk, repackages it for retail sales and sells it in three states. Bill's wife is in the small warehouse, working along side two employees as they mix product, fill containers and prepare it for shipping.

Bill's product is sold wholesale to beauty supply stores. Back in the day, Bill had several sales reps who went out into the field, took orders and delivered the orders. Bill stayed in the office and ran his business.

I was actually lucky to run into Bill. He had just returned from a sales trip to another state. Now, Bill loads up his van with product and spends four to five days a week on the road. He is the sole rep for his company. He still has to manage the operations of his business, he just has far less time to do it.

Bill now accepts credit cards and is willing to post date the orders so his customers can pay (hopefully) for his product. He has seen many of his customers go out of business and sees that his remaining ones are hurting just as bad as he is.

Bill emigrated to the country from the middle east thirty five years ago and has been in business for twenty nine years. He tells me that he has never seen it this bad and that he thinks we are about half way through the bad times. Like the cabinet maker, Bill has gone through his retirement funds to keep his business going and to invest in some foreclosed properties to use as rentals. Bill also tells me that he has downsized his leased warehouse twice and has outsourced some of the processes in order to save money. He wants to cut his already small warehouse size in half, but his landlord won't let him out of the lease. He will be moving when his lease expires.

Bill has a few fire extinguisher issues and needs to secure a compressed gas cylinder so it won't fall over. I write him an NCR, explaiing to him why and that it won't cost him very much to be in compliance. Although Bill doesn't know it, I am on his side. However, I still need him to be safe. That is what inspections should be about, not generating revenue.

As with the cabinet maker, I don't ask to see Bill's Business Tax Certificate. I have spoke with my union president about this issue. I know that if a big enough issue is made of this I will have to comply and start enforcing the Business Tax Certificate edict. Until then I am just not going to play.

Be safe, I hope all of you are doing ok with this tough economy. I really appreciate your reading my words.

Just another Schmoe, trying to keep the wolves from the door.


  1. I don't blame you for not wanting to ask for the certificate. It isn't and shouldn't be considered part of your job. We have seen many businesses here close down due to the crappy economy. Both large and small ones.

  2. Good stand. Could you get your union to speak to the media or would that help?