As city of San Diego leaders warn of cuts to fire services, a new audit has raised concerns that the Fire Department is inefficiently using the resources available to it.

A recent report by the Auditor’s Office revealed that the department has failed to recover $545,322 in inspection fees since July 2009, while data errors caused a loss of $100,000 in 2008 and 2009.

Supporters of the city’s sales tax and reform measure, Proposition D, say they need the additional funds to stave off major cuts to public safety. Audit Manager Kyle Elser said the report raises concerns the department is not only lacking necessary revenue, but inadequately uses what it already has.

Fire Chief Javier Mainar disagreed with the idea that resources are being wasted.

The failure to recover inspection fees for high-rise buildings began in July 2009 after proprietors argued the method used to determine fees was unfair. The dispute led to a reevaluation of the fee structure and fees were discontinued until July 2010, causing a loss of $545,322, the audit estimates.

Mainar said the choice to not collect more than a half a million dollars in inspection fees “was a conscious decision.”

“We agreed and suspended the billing. We were working on a refinement formula to make it fair — first. It did not make sense to send erroneous bills and then go back and correct it,” Mainar said.

The department intends to recover those funds after City Council approves a new fee structure, although trying to retroactively collect fees fully will be a challenge, Elser said.

“Collecting those fees should have been a higher priority for the department,” Elser said.

The audit states that the department only completed 65 percent of brush inspections, in part because of a lack of resources but also because of weak internal controls.

Current data systems do not list business sites accurately and lack a reliable tracking system, causing businesses that require an annual inspection to slip through the cracks while sites that have gone out of business are scheduled for inspection.

This not only threatens public safety, but over the past two years cost the department $100,000 in fees that can’t be recovered, Elser said.

Mainar said it was “a good report — it pointed out things we’re doing well and where we could make improvements,” but he disagreed with the auditor’s conclusion that brush management practices need improvement. Mainar said the regulations currently in place protect the community.

Going forward, the department has been working to replace its data technology and expects systems to be updated within the next couple of months.

The city auditor also found the department:

• Does not annually inspect all parcels within its jurisdiction for brush management compliance;

• Is using outdated brush management regulations;

• Is using inappropriate brush management assessments;

• Does not monitor whether public entities comply with brush management and other fire prevention requirements.

Please contact Ashlie Rodriguez directly at ashlie.rodriguez@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0525.

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