City vacancies put residents at risk

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2010

When it comes to the Natchez planning and inspection departments, city leaders are playing with fire — literally.

Seventy years ago this spring, 209 people died and many others were severely injured in the seventh most deadly structural fire in American history.

The Rhythm Night Club fire was not hundreds of miles from City Hall. It was just seven blocks away.

Countless lives were changed forever after that night when the inferno spread quickly through the Spanish-moss-draped dance floor. The windows, boarded up to prevent outsiders from catching a glimpse of the band playing that night, also prevented victims from escaping the flames that quickly engulfed the structure.

The Rhythm Night Club Fire contributed to a nationwide move toward new building and fire codes regulating exit access, structural and fire resistant construction practices and other building issues that would help prevent similar disasters.

Ironically, 70 years after the deadly fire on St. Catherine Street, there will soon be no one in City Hall to enforce the same codes that the Rhythm Night Club Fire helped shape.

On June 30, city building inspector Paul Dawes will step down as the city’s building inspector, a job he has performed for 13 years. In recent months Dawes has also acted as the interim city planner, a position that has been left vacant for sevn months. With Dawes’ exit, the city planning department will be left with only a secretary at the helm.

Without qualified and trained professionals in these departments the health and safety of area residents are at risk.

It’s that plain and simple.

And if something is not done soon after Dawes retires this summer, residents’ pocketbooks are at risk as well.

In recent years, controversies over paint colors, tall grass, historic preservation and billboards have overshadowed one of the primary responsibilities of the city planners and inspectors — enforcing health and safety codes.

Whether it is the building code, electrical code, residential code, plumbing code or one of the numerous other codes adopted by the city, planners and inspectors review building plans to determine if they meet these minimum safety standards.

Inspectors make sure building plans provide adequate exits for the public in assembly spaces, including night clubs. They make sure such spaces are built of appropriate fire resistant materials. They make sure plumbing and wiring provide safe drinking water and safe access to electricity.

Planners make sure buildings adhere to zoning setbacks that prevent the spread of flames in the event of fire in an adjacent building. They make sure commercial buildings provide adequate access for fire engines and emergency vehicles.

Along with regular inspections from the fire department, the city planning and inspection departments help reduce the risk that our city ever will experience another tragedy like the Rhythm Nigh Club fire.

Additionally, these inspections also affect a community’s fire insurance rating. These ratings, which are based on the quality of the city’s fire department and its building codes and inspection programs, are used by property insurance companies to set insurance premiums. Without an adequate inspection department, property insurance rates could rise for city residents.

Seven months after the city planner was laid off, city leaders have yet to hire a replacement in the name of cost savings. Are the mayor and board of alderman planning to wait that long to hire another building inspector?

Are they willing to put residents’ health, safety and pocketbooks at risk?

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.