Earlier this week members of Duluth's life safety department shared their concerns about recent layoffs that have hit their division particularly hard.
Greg Smith, who has been employed by the city for more than eight years, is one of four inspectors who lost their jobs.
During a public comment period before the Duluth City Council on Monday, Smith tried to put those cuts in perspective, saying: "This constitutes almost our entire division and only leaves one lead inspector working. We understand that this is a challenging time financially for the city and that the administration has a hard job ahead of it. However, we also recognize the negative impact these layoffs will have on city services by decreasing the safety and maintenance of rental units, resulting in an impact on the quality of life for thousands of tenants throughout our city."
Smith said spring and summer are typically the busiest seasons for the life safety division.
He warned that "As the days go on without housing inspectors working, 40% of Duluth's housing stock, which is comprised of over 14,400 rental units, will go uninspected and unregulated. Tenants who call with a housing complaint may go unassisted. Life safety issues such as vacant buildings and dangerous structures will have to be prioritized, leaving potential public hazards and nuisances unaddressed and inspections required by city code will be all but stopped."
Sohn Wehseler said people may not be aware of the multiple roles housing inspectors, like himself, play.
"The issues we come across on a weekly basis would stun the average citizen," he said. "Life safety works with many city and county departments to address zoning issues, animal abuse, as well as child and adult protective services. "
Wehseler said inspectors also ensure that everyone plays by the same rules and noted that the life safety division has brought 800 unlicensed rental properties into compliance since 2016.
City Councilor Derek Medved asked: "Why does it seem that life safety did take a huge impact or a decrease in personnel and other departments did not see that? I mean that was pretty much wiping out one whole department."
Medved questioned whether the 50-plus layoffs of city staff were occurring in a fair and equitable fashion.
"To date, we haven't seen any administrative positions laid off but more of the boots on the ground, as I explain it. So, to me that's a little concerning," he said. "So I'd like to ask: Why did life safety take such an impact?"
Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, explained that in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city had asked staff to work from home to the best of their abilities. But some jobs simply were impossible to perform in that setting. He said that initially the city continued to pay idled staff nevertheless.
"And at a certain point, after now six weeks, that is not something that financially we are able to continue to do — to pay people who are not able to do their normal job functions," he said.
"In this case, with the life safety folks, one of the core duties is to go into people's homes, and given the safety implications of that we were not willing to ask them to do that. And that meant they were at home and not able to work to their full extent. So, that is why we started with that group," Schuchman said.
Councilor Joel Sipress thanked the housing inspectors for sharing their concerns and said: "I know the future is very, very uncertain, and I don't want to in any way sugarcoat the seriousness of the city's financial situation and the degree of difficulty of decisions that are going to have to be made. But with that said, I want to make sure that everyone in life safety understands that I, and I believe all of us, recognize how important their work is. I've been on this council for about six years now, and from working with constituents I've seen how important that work is."
Schuchman noted that in his previous job with the city of Minneapolis, he oversaw regulatory functions, including housing inspection services, and has a personal appreciation for the importance of the work.
"Certainly our intent is to bring those folks back as soon as we are able, while also understanding our need to protect the long-term financial future of the city, and I appreciate their comments this evening and their passion for their work. I share that," he said.