City workshop addresses license confusion
POLSON — The City of Polson held another public workshop last Wednesday, June 22, to discuss the possible implementation of a business license.
The workshop began with changes made to the framework of the proposal thanks to feedback from the previous meeting. The first major change made was defining the exempt “home occupation” specifically, clarifying that any home business in a dwelling with no more than one full-time, on-premises employee who is not a member of the resident family will be exempt from the license. Another change was the addition of a transition period, as suggested by a public attendee from the previous meeting, which would allow 24 months after the establishment of the ordinance, during which the license fee would not come due, for extensive Fire Code education and how compliance could be achieved. After the end of the transition period, the implementation of the business license would come into effect, requiring a satisfactory fire inspection for the issuance of a business license.
The proposed fee structure for licenses remains based on the square footage of indoor locations in which a business operates, including secondary locations, but would cap out at $250 maximum. Smaller businesses would experience a lower fee, down to $40, based on the amount of space a fire inspector would need to cover.
Businesses listed as exempt from the proposed license include businesses such as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, temporary bazaars, domestic servants, businesses belonging to the United States government, any political subdivision of the state of Montana, and any Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes subsidiary or affiliated businesses.
When asked why members of the CSKT were exempt from this license, City Manager Ed Meece explained the proposal was written mirroring existing exempt status the tribe has in other governmental framework, including federal. “If I felt the city had the authority to (include the tribe), we would do that,” Meece said. “I’m not trying to play favorites, I’m just trying to follow established law and authority of what our city can and can’t apply.”
A significant revelation that came up during the meeting was shared by Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Straub, who explained the State of Montana announced it will no longer be performing fire inspections, leaving all of the mandatory inspections up to cities themselves, which was the catalyst to proposing this license. As Straub currently works 26 hours per week, he will be unable to keep up with the required inspections without the funds to bring him up to full time hours. Should this proposal not pass, Meece explained the city would have to pull funding from elsewhere to prioritize the fire safety funding.
Several attendees pointed out that, rather than a license for businesses to operate, the proposal seemed to be more of a fire safety license instead. Meece admitted it was an issue with branding, stating he was less concerned about what it was called when they began piecing together the proposal, but realized now that was an oversight.
“We should have called it a fire safety inspection license… We don’t want to change it midway through because then people would think we’re trying to get away with something,” Meece explained the concern. “We’re not trying to hide anything or trick anyone.”
“The fact that it’s called a business license is what’s scaring people,” one attendee from the public pointed out in reply. Several local business owners had expressed as much throughout the meeting, siting burocratic overreach and unnecessary fees during times of inflation as some of their primary concerns. Prior to the revelation about the ending of state fire inspections, there was little public understanding shown regarding the need for funding for what was thought to be additional fire inspections.
The city also clarified that Fire Assistant Chief Straub already has the authority to inspect businesses and cite issues in need of change. This proposal would not grant the city any additional authority, but rather fund the staff needed to conduct the already state mandated fire inspections. An additional benefit of this, Straub mentioned, would be the ability for fire department members to create “pre-plan” blueprint-like layout documents for each business to be added to the fire department’s Geographic Information System (GIS) system for increased safety for firefighters during an emergency response.
The draft of the proposal discussed at the meeting, with changes made from the previous workshop meeting highlighted in red, can be viewed online at https://www.cityofpolson.com/sites/default/files/fileattachments/community/page/4514/bus_lic_packet_6_13_22_version.pdf.
Several additional changes were suggested by the public by the conclusion of the workshop, including updating the “all other applicable codes adopted by the City of Polson” to a more specific list related to fire codes to prevent possible overreach, adjusting the number of garage sales mentioned in the exemptions to not restrict locals unnecessarily, and clarifying in writing how grandfathering certain standards would work for older buildings.
The next meeting, set to take place in August, will either be another workshop or an official first reading of the proposal by the city council, either of which will still allow for public input and feedback. The next meeting will be announced on the city website, on social media, and via a flier distributed to local businesses via the mailing list provided by commercial utilities bills. Written public comment can be submitted to the Polson City Hall.