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Convention centers protest plan to raise fire inspection fees

Operators of the Strip’s largest convention centers are upset about the heftier fire inspection fees that Clark County has proposed, saying they could stifle their ability to lure much-needed events in dire economic times.

Conventions are on a long list of proposed fee increases for county fire inspections.

Fire Department officials say higher fees are needed to ensure they have enough staff to prevent long delays in approving site plans. But the area’s biggest convention players wrote a letter to the county that decried the proposed fees.

MGM Mirage, Sands Expo & Convention Center, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority were among them.

"There is a concern this could give an advantage to our competitors," said Vince Alberta, convention authority spokesman. "Is there another solution? Can we find a way to make the Fire Department whole without increasing fees 10 times the amount of what’s being paid today?"

County commissioners are tentatively scheduled to review the fees on May 4.

Conventions are vetted for public safety. Inspectors ensure booths do not block doorways and aisles, flammable materials are kept away from heat and crowds are not too large to hinder escape during a fire.

The convention authority researched about 65 convention spots around the nation and learned that about half, including in Chicago, pay no fees to have floor plans reviewed by fire officials, Alberta said. Other cities such as Orlando, Fla., pay $75, the low end of the county’s current fee scale.

The Fire Department charges $75 to $225, depending on the convention size.

Under the proposal, the county would charge $338 for plans submitted at least nine days before the event; $676 if five to nine days prior; $1,014 for two to four days; and $1,352 for less than two days.

Also, organizers would pay a new fee of two-tenths of a cent per square foot.

Alberta said that fire officials have been receptive to concerns about convention fees and that the two parties are continuing to "have a dialogue."

Deputy Fire Chief Girard Page said the proposed fee increases are based on staffing needs.

Fire inspectors logged 19,000 hours of overtime last year and 17,000 hours in 2008, almost all of which was charged to the businesses, he said. A few years ago, the staff was so strained that businesses waited as long as six months to get their floor plans approved. Sometimes, no one was available, though the client offered to pay overtime, Page said.

Since then, construction has tapered off enough for the 47 inspectors and 12 plan checkers to handle duties, Page said. Most keep busy with other types of inspections, such as flammable chemical storage, which became backlogged last year because his teams focused heavily on the CityCenter project, he said.

When construction picks up again in a few years, he wants to have enough staff, he said. Customers do not want to wait eight to 14 weeks for plans to be checked, let alone six months.

They would rather pay a higher fee, Page said. "Our customers tell us, ‘You’re too slow. We can’t survive at this rate.’"

Not all contractors think the fee increases are fair. Fire alarm vendors, whose fees will jump to $608 for the first 25 devices installed from the current $75, were peeved. But none wanted to be quoted for this story.

One construction contractor agreed that forking out more money is better than keeping a client waiting.

"I’d rather pay that money upfront and provide for my client rather than worry that they (fire inspectors) don’t have the staff that they need," said Larry Monkarsh, co-owner of LM Construction Co. "Time is money."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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