ONEONTA _ The city's fire chief says it is troubling that the Code Enforcement Office found that one in four rental properties in the city do not have current smoke-detector inspection reports.

"I'm very concerned about that," Chief Robert Barnes said.

Non-working smoke detectors, especially in overcrowded apartments, could have tragic consequences, Barnes said Wednesday, a day after a memo from code inspector Patricia Roodhof calling for tougher enforcement authority was circulated among aldermen.

As of Tuesday, 221 of the 955 rental residential properties in the city did not have up-to-date smoke-detector inspection forms on file with the code enforcement officer.

All told, 545 properties did not have valid certificates of substantial compliance because they lacked smoke-detector forms, other inspection forms or for other reasons.

Certificates of compliance are required for the owners of rental properties in order for those properties to be used as residences. Smoke-detector inspection forms must be submitted every 12 months, and property owners may do their own inspections.

Fourth Ward Alderman Michael Lynch said he agrees with Roodhof that a system of civil penalties levied against those who fail to return inspection forms could encourage compliance.

The Code Enforcement Office does not have the staff to perform all of these inspections, Lynch said, and that is likely the reason behind a system of owner-conducted inspections that started years ago.

"It's a massive amount of work, and it's not too much to ask these landlords," Lynch said.

At one time, the fire department performed official fire safety inspections on rental properties in the city, but those powers were delegated to the Code Enforcement Office, Barnes said.

The department still does fire safety inspections, but not in an official capacity.

"We have no statutory authority. We do that as a service to individuals. What we recommend or suggest has no clout," Barnes said.

But Barnes said it would not be possible to begin widespread smoke-detector inspections with his current level of staffing.

"We've got more work than we can cover now," Barnes said.

Roodhof did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday. She has been in charge of day-to-day operations of the Code Enforcement Office since Peter Friedman's Feb. 20 retirement. Friedman, the former code enforcement officer, had proposed legislation designed to toughen city's code enforcement policies.

But since his retirement, that proposal has not been considered.

First Ward Alderman Maureen Hennessy, chairwoman of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said that when Friedman retired, the committee put consideration of these changes on hold in anticipation of hiring a new code enforcement officer.

But there were not enough eligible candidates after civil service test results came back earlier this year, and the city has said it will wait until 2009 to make a hire.

Hennessy also said the original draft of the proposal was cumbersome and that the magnitude of properties not in compliance was not known at the time.

Hennessy said IGA will revisit Friedman's proposals and discuss possible solutions at its next meeting on Oct. 16.

City Personnel Director Kathy Ann Wolverton said the next state-offered civil service examination for code enforcement officer is in May.

"You could appoint someone on a temporary basis or a provisional basis," Wolverton said.

But Wolverton, who started working for the city Sept. 2, said she has not discussed that position with the city's Finance, Operations, Legal Affairs and Personnel Committee.

"I'm sure that discussion will happen soon," she said.

Smoke detector safety tips

Test monthly.

Change the batteries every six months and use important dates as reminders.

Don't deactivate them or "borrow" the battery.

Keep them at least a foot away from sharp corners.

Place them on all levels of a residence and in rooms where people sleep or rest.

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