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Did Springfield businesses pay too much for alarms?

Date: 12/1/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- If the judge hearing the suit in Hampden Superior Court against the city brought by St. George Greek Orthodox Church decides in the church's favor, City Councilor Timothy Rooke is going to propose reimbursing any business in the city who has overpaid to fulfill the city's fire alarm upgrade ordinance.

The ordinance in question requires businesses to upgrade their fire alarm system to a wireless system. The only system acceptable to the ordinance is one sold by Wel-Design Alarm Systems of Wilbraham, which is the only city-approved installer of that particular system.

Rooke said one business he knows paid $30,000 for the system stipulated by the city ordinance. If allowed to follow the state building regulations, that business would be in compliance with a system costing $3,200.

Rooke would also seek a way to change the ordiance.

Rooke spoke to the representative of the Attorney General's office last week after waiting eight months following a request for a ruling on whether the ordinance is legal. Rooke explained to Reminder Publications the office cannot advise cities -- just towns -- but the representative did confirm state building codes set the standard and overrule any local ordinance.

In a 2002 letter to the town clerk of Acushnet, Attorney General Thomas Reilly wrote on an issue concerning a local ordinance on fire alarm masters boxes," ... it is inconsistent with the State Building Code for the town to require that only master boxes be used for fire protection system supervision."

The state building code allows for three different options and allows building owners to chose among competing systems and contractors as long as they meet the state's qualifications.

The Finance Control Board adopted the ordinance requiring a "city-approved radio box" on Nov. 27, 2006. Businesses were given until Dec. 31, 2008, to make the switch to the new system. If businesses did not comply they could face a $100 a day fine.

The city then issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) on Nov. 28, 2007, stipulating the wireless alarm boxes "must be Factory Mutual approved for public reporting." Factory Mutual is one of several manufacturers of the wireless technology. The only company carrying the Factory Mutual brand is Wel-Design Alarm Systems. The RFP was written by then acting Chief Procurement Officer Timothy J. Plante.

According to Rooke, the RFP was advertised for one day. There was only one vendor who could meet the requirements of the RFP.

Rooke has been pursuing the issues presented by the ordinance after meeting with several business owners who expressed concerns over the implementation of the ordinance.

"The city is not being very business friendly," he said. "The city caused a financial burden on the businesses. Even when it was brought to the attention of the decision makers they stayed the course."

Rooke said that at one City Council meeting the author of the ordinance was reported as Fire Commissioner Gary Cassinelli. Rooke said that when questioned why only one system was approved, he received "a vague answer" concerning how a tower to receive the signals would be built by the vendor.

To compare the way Springfield dealt with the conversion to wireless units from old hard-wire system, one can look at Chicopee. In that city in 2006, businesses were given the option of buying a state-approved system through Chicopee Electric Light for at the cost of $3,840 installed or leased at $51 per month. Businesses could also seek a state-approved system through a private vendor.

As part of the current lawsuit, the Building Code Appeals Board heard testimony on Aug. 25 from both the city and representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church. The board wrote in its final report dated Oct. 27, "On March 9, 2009, the city's Fire Marshall sent a reminder notice to the [Greek Cultural] Center advising that conversion from a master box to a [city approved] radio box was required by the ordinance. On May 29, 2009, a building permit was issued by the city's Code Enforcement Department to the Center allowing the installation of a fire alarm communicator. In accordance with the permit, a dual line communicator linked to a UL listed central station was installed. On June 16, 2009, the system was disallowed by order of Capt. [David] Rivera. The order states 'master box needs to be replaced with city approved radio box per ordinance 7:13:35'."

The board also wrote in the report, "This limitation of the city appears to be in direct conflict with the Code as it imposes a more stringent requirement. Municipalities are provided with a mechanism by which they may impose a more restrictive requirement than the Code. That procedure was not followed in this case, however. While this Board is without authority to strike down an ordinance, it observes that the ordinance at issue appears to impermissibly directly regulate in an area which has been reserved for the Code."

The board concluded the system installed by the church in the Cultural Center met state requirements.

"The common criticism you hear is that is twice as hard to do business in Springfield than in neighboring communities," Rooke said.