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Mills River hit with $10,000 fire inspections bill

MILLS RIVER —Ever since it incorporated, Mills River has gotten free fire inspections from the Henderson County fire marshal's office while three other towns pay for the service. That may be about to end.

The fire marshal's office conducts the inspections to ensure that businesses comply with fire and safety codes. Fletcher, Flat Rock and Laurel Park all pay for them. (The Hendersonville Fire Department conducts the inspections in that city.)

"We have contracts with Fletcher, Laurel Park and Flat Rock," said County Manager Steve Wyatt. "I thought we had contracts with everybody. A health department inspector found out last year that we weren't charging Mills River. There was no contract and basically we said that's a problem because we need to treat everybody the same."

Because the county discovered the omission after Mills River had already drafted its 2014-15 budget, it gave the town a one-year grace period. "We worked it out with (then town manager) Jaime Laughter basically that we'd go ahead and finish out this fiscal year but after that we would have to have a contract," Wyatt said. "So Rocky (Hyder) sent them a contract. The issue is we need a level playing field. Was is it an oversight? Who knows? My interest is going forward."

County Fire Marshal Wally Hollis said his office has been inspecting businesses in Mills River since before Mills River became a town in 2003 and since then.

"We were under the impression that they had a general contract with the county to pay for all services," Hollis said. "That's the reason we didn't question why we didn't receive any payment for it."

The inspections are not something Mills River could drop.

"They're state-mandated," Hollis said. "Every business in the state has to have a fire inspection on an annual, semiannual or three-year basis."

Rocky Hyder, the director of the county's Emergency Medical Services, drafted a contract charging Mills River $10,000 a year for fire inspections.

"We haven't had a whole lot of conversation about it yet but we will have on Thursday," said Jeff Wells, the Mills River town manager. "The county has provided a contract that's similar to Fletcher's."

The contract is on the agenda for discussion by the Mills River Town Council on Thursday night. County Commissioner Bill Lapsley, who heard about the issue from Mills River town Councilman Roger Snyder, said he plans to attend the meeting. Hyder also is scheduled to be there.

Towns pay the county for inspections in slightly different ways.

The fire marshal's office sends a bill to the Village of Flat Rock when it inspects a commercial property. The village pays the bill and the village tax collector bills the business, said Village Administrator Judy Boleman.

The town of Fletcher budgeted $30,650 for the service this fiscal year. It bills businesses based on a tiered schedule because inspecting a small office takes less time than inspecting a large factory.

"We raised the fee a couple of years ago because it was costing us more to provide the service than we were getting in revenue-wise," Town Manager Mark Biberdorf said. "Every year we've got an amount that we budget in." Although the contract includes contingencies for more time-consuming work like an arson investigation "we've never hit the point where extra charges have kicked in," Biberdorf said. "It's been a good partnership. For us it's worked well for several years.'

Town Manager Alison Melnikova said Laurel Park paid the fire marshal's office $1,800 last year and did not pass on the cost. "We just absorb it," she sa