Fire chief takes on property maintenance code oversight

Interim City Manager Omar Strohm has appointed Fire Chief Tim Hileman to oversee the property maintenance codes department, in addition to his Fire Department duties.

In doing so, Strohm has relieved himself of one of his own responsibilities, which include supervision of the finance and personnel departments.

“[Strohm] saw the need for [the property maintenance codes] department to have a little more leadership,” Hileman said Thursday. “More daily oversight and more hands-on management.”

Strohm also appointed Deputy Fire Chief Mike Tofano to be Hileman’s deputy for property maintenance, in addition to his Fire Department duties.

Property maintenance code department oversight became one of the city manager’s duties when former City Manager Joe Weakland split up the Codes & Inspections Department in 2011, a move that included placing building codes responsibility under the planning director, where it remains.

City Council never wanted that shift of property maintenance responsibility to the city manager to be permanent, because it put too much of a burden on the manager, said Mayor Bill Schirf.

That extra burden was even more egregious for Strohm than for Weakland because of his finance and personnel responsibilities, Schirf said.

So shifting it – and shifting it to Hileman, who is a fine leader – is “an excellent idea,” Schirf said.

Hileman and Tofano will devote the next couple weeks to learn how things are done in property maintenance, so they can devise improvements, recommend them to Strohm and put them into practice if Strohm gives the OK, Hileman said.

“It’s safe to say there’s some automation necessary,” Hileman said, “to use technology to make tracking complaints and violations a little easier and more efficient.”

That could involve figuring out a way to make use of electronic tablets that the department found not to its liking, at least partly because the tablets can’t communicate online to City Hall when used inside buildings – for instance by the rental inspection group in the property maintenance codes department.

Without that online access that would allow for single data entry, it’s easier for officers to make initial entries on paper, then transfer them to computers back in the office.

“I think they probably had some glitches and put off using [the tablets] until they got the property equipment and software,” Hileman said.

The city has a Wi-Fi system, but that was designed primarily for the police department, Hileman said.

One potential solution mentioned in the city’s Act 47 recovery plan is the acquisition of aircards to make connections through cellphone service.

“We certainly want to get out of the paper and pencil era,” Hileman said.

He plans to work through Strohm and City Council for “resources” for the needed upgrades – although the department has a small budget, and “a bunch of big changes up front are unlikely,” he said.

One means of helping identify the needed resources is the Act 47-ordered information technology audit that will soon take place, he said.

The department has seven employees – not counting Hileman and Tofano.

They comprise five field officers – including working supervisor Kathy Wesley – and two clerks in the finance office whose duties include finance department work.

The appointments of Hileman and Tofano will enhance communication between the property maintenance codes and fire departments, which should help each identify issues the other can handle, according to Hileman.

Code officers sometimes encounter fire safety problems that need to be reported to the fire inspector and firefighters sometimes encounter property maintenance problems that need to be reported to code officers, he said.

“That’s where Mike and I come in,” he said. “We’ll know first hand [about those problems on each side].”

The Act 47 plan recommends checking out the feasibility of cross training the fire inspector and firefighters “to accomplish the necessary work.”

That would include Fire Department personnel conducting basic property maintenance inspections during the course of their Fire Department actions, according to the plan.

Hileman expects that code officers might get some training eventually on recognizing fire safety violations.

For now, however, he does not envision firefighters working as code officers or even cross-training on code issues.

Hileman himself, however, plans to take a test to become a certified property maintenance inspector.

Hileman said it’s “still being discussed” whether the additional duties he and Tofano have taken on would mean pay increases.

“It will be a learning process,” Hileman said. “Looking forward to the challenge.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.