A Hummel Report InvestigationThousands of businesses every year have their hot water heaters inspected by the state of Rhode Island - and with it comes a fee. But are the inspections necessary? This week Jim Hummel finds that an increase in the number inspectors has resulted in more businesses subject to inspections - some for the first time in decades. But he also discovers the state is revamping the program, with emphasis on a little customer service, and a lower fee.
Dozens of businesses along Metacom Avenue in Warren got an unexpected visit last month: A state inspector arrived to take a look their water heaters.
Pray: ``He walked in the door, said he was here to inspect the hot water tank, came around the counter, went in, inspected the hot water tank, left his name and number - and if we had any questions, if I had any questions, and then left.''
Tim Pray has owned TAP Printing for 23 years and doesn't even use his hot water heater, which is tucked away in the rear of the building, away from the public and his employees.
Pray: ``He looked at it, he looked at its age and nothing was leaking and it's pretty well secure; five minutes, you look to the left you look at the right and you walk out. I said, watch, in a week we'll get a bill.''
Sure enough, two weeks later this invoice arrived - informing Pray he owed the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training $120. But it wasn't clear from the invoice if this was a new program or an existing one.
That same week the owner of Club Canine in Bristol had a similar experience. Owner Elena Botelho says her water heater is only two years old.
Botelho: ``He didn't even really describe anything that was going on . He just said he needed to inspect it, left a post-it note with his name and phone number on it. ''
Hummel: ``A post it note?''
Hummel: `No business card? Did he say what division he was from in the state?''
Botelho: ``No, No just from the state of Rhode Island.''
Pray: ``I feel strongly that if hot water tank had to be inspected, you would think they'd check to see if the electricity was on for it - to see if it was working. Ours is off. You would think that every home that had a hot water tank would need to be inspected also or is this just a way to raise money for the state to run government?''
Hummel: ``So what you're saying is safety versus revenue.''
It turns out the so-called boiler inspection is not a new program - it's been on the books for years and requires hot water heaters installed ``in places of public assembly'' to be inspected. That includes schools, child care centers, hospitals, churches and other public buildings.
Hummel: ``The inspections are handled by a unit here at the department of Labor and Training, but for years they didn't have enough manpower to go out regularly. The new director says Gov. Chafee ordered him to take a closer look at the program.''
Fogarty: ``In Rhode Island we have a very broad interpretation of the kind of buildings to inspect, where these water heaters and boilers are in them, versus Connecticut and Massachusetts.''
DLT Director Charlie Fogarty says it's spelled out in state law, something his department is pushing to amend during this session of the General Assembly to narrow the focus of inspections. Fogarty says state inspectors found problems with 80 of the 9,300 boilers inspected last year, but agrees water heaters in some businesses may not need inspection.
Hummel: ``They haven't seen an inspector in 20 years and all of a sudden somebody's showing up and he's getting an invoice for $120 - it's hard to convince him it's not a revenue-generator as opposed to a safety concern.''
Fogarty: ``Let me be clear on a couple of things. First, the money that is collected by this inspection fee doesn't go to the department, it goes right into the General Fund, so there's no incentive for the department to go out and inspect more other than the public safety component. Secondly, we're doing this - at the governor's request, by the way - we're lowering this fee. So we're going to end up reducing the revenues coming into the state by a quarter of a million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year.''
That means businesses will pay $60 every two years beginning July 1st.
Then there's the issue of customer service. Fogarty gave us a brochure the department prints giving an overview of the program. But none of the businesses we spoke with received it. And Pray tried to call the number the inspector gave him, but got no answer and no machine.
Pray: ``I had to go on the internet to get the brochure to see what it was all about, and then you find out oh it's a $60 inspection fee; but then you get a bill in the mail for $120. So in reality shouldn't they bring this in to you to begin with and say this is what this is for. And they don't.''
Hummel: ``From a customer service aspect what's your reaction when you hear that?''
Fogarty: ``Well we expect the staff... to let the customer know what they're there for and the reason why. They're supposed to be getting one of these brochures as they go and inspect which tells the purpose and reason for it. One of my little pet peeves is when you're meeting with the public you need to have a business card. And for whatever reason that hasn't been the case. So all of our people who have contact with the public are going to be required to have those business cars. We can do them up here internally , they don't have to cost a lot of money. There has to be some point of contact without having to scribble it down. Not only for the customer, but for the individual as well.''
Pray says the state needs to apply some common sense to the law.
Hummel: ``Where is your hot water heater?''
Pray: ``It's right in the center of our building. We have four people here most of the time and it's off the majority of time.''
Hummel: ``Even if it was on, how close would it be to the public?''
Pray: ``Probably 50 feet away from the public.''
Hummel: ``Your public doesn't really get past the counter do they?''
Pray: ``No they don't.''
Fogarty: ``So we're reducing the fee effective July 1 by 50 percent and hopefully with the passage of legislation by regulation later this year we will eliminate a whole host of businesses that currently fall under the law but we feel are not necessary to be inspected given the safety concerns out there,''
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.