The Oakland Fire Department's prevention bureau over-charged an unknown but significant number of homeowners for unnecessary property re-inspections — or inspections that never took place. The bills, sent earlier this year, were back-dated to 2012 in some instances.
The error stems from the department’s larger failure to collect unpaid fees for vegetation inspections in parts of the city susceptible to wildfire.
Barbara Levy, who lives in East Oakland above the Interstate 580, received two bills in April for a combined $606. The fire department claimed she owed money for two re-inspections of her property that were conducted in August and September of 2015. But Levy maintains the invoices are incorrect, and that her home passed its scheduled inspection that year.
Levy — who shared a copy of both bills with the Express — wrote in an email that many of her neighbors also received invoices, even though they believe they passed their initial inspections and were never notified of any problems that required a re-inspection, which triggers the fee.
The invoices also demand payment within thirty days, otherwise the city will charge "additional fees" or even take "legal action" against homeowners.
What's more, the city is requiring payment be made only in the form of a money order or cashier's check.
"We are being treated like scofflaws/criminals, not the taxpaying, law-abiding citizens that we are," Levy wrote.
Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington and Dan Kalb — whose districts span parts of the hill areas where the fire inspections were conducted — both said they’re concerned about the erroneous bills, as well as the fire department’s failure to timely collect fees.
At Tuesday's meeting of the city council's public-safety committee, several more hills residents voiced frustration about the faulty invoices, and the confusing process by which the fire department conducts inspections.
"A lot of people are upset about the procedure for the inspection and the levying of the fines," said Charles Steidman, who lives on Skyline Boulevard.
Carolyn Burgess, a board member of the North Hills Community Association, told the committee that "there's been a lot of upset people, because all of a sudden, after these years, they've gotten a non-compliant bill. A lot of people say they never received the [bills] from 2012, thirteen, or fourteen."
Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo didn’t return an email and phone call seeking more information about the invoices. But during Tuesday’s public safety committee meeting, Trujillo acknowledged that the department failed to send out bills in previous years, and also that the department’s vegetation-inspection database contained errors that caused the recent incorrect invoicing affecting a large number of homeowners.
Trujillo said as many as many as "20 percent" of entries in the fire department’s inspection database suffered from errors.
It’s unclear how many of the recent invoices are valid. Some unpaid bills date back five years, and Trujillo estimated the total amount the city stands to collect at $400,000. Each re-inspection costs $303.
Tom Schindler told the committee he cleared vegetation last year and assumed his property was in compliance after not hearing from the fire department following his scheduled inspection. But then he received two invoices charging him for re-inspections. “I think there's a basic due-process aspect to this,” he said about the surprise bills and strict terms of payment.
Believing her property is compliant with the fire code, Levy took her two invoices to the Fire Prevention Bureau last week. A fire official agreed that the bills were sent in error and voided them.
Campbell Washington and Kalb met with fire department staff earlier today about the billing mistakes. According to Campbell Washington, the department agreed to extend the deadline for payment from thirty days to July 20.
In the meantime, for homeowners who think their bill is incorrect, the department will establish an appeals process that doesn’t require payment. And the city will also conduct an internal audit of its database to weed out erroneous bills.
“This is what you should do when you make a mistake,” Campbell Washington said about the department’s new plan.