By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — Snohomish County code inspectors were convinced that a cultural center had lagged for months in fixing exit signs that were out of compliance with fire code.
So the fire marshal added late fees that bumped an original $3,000 fine to $22,000. Only later did he learn that the sign problems already had been corrected.
County planning officials this week officially lowered the fine to $1,000, saying that a language barrier led to the months of confusion. A state senator’s involvement as an intermediary, they said, had nothing to do with the decision.
“Once I started the investigation, it was determined that these billings were in error,” fire marshal Mike McCrary said.
County inspectors noticed two improperly illuminated exit signs at Morning Star Korean Cultural Center in April.
Code inspectors spoke with a pastor at the center, but because of the man’s limited English, he didn’t initially understand what they wanted him to do to the signs, McCrary said. By July, the signs had the necessary backup power required by international fire code, which the county follows. However, because inspectors didn’t return to check on compliance, for all the county knew, the sign issue remained unresolved.
“We didn’t do a follow-up inspection because we were expecting a call, and they didn’t know they had to call,” McCrary said. “There was still some obligation on their part.”
The county received no response to its original $3,000 fine. By early November it had tacked on $19,000 in late fees.
In late November, state Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, who speaks Korean and is involved with the center, helped interpret for the pastor during a meeting with code-enforcement staff. Afterward, McCrary said he went to his supervisors and asked that the fine be lowered.
County code says a citation may be modified or withdrawn if issued in error. Another section of code says fines can only be trimmed by 25 percent. However, McCrary said the county can cut the amount further if officials need to correct a mistake.
To pay for the time fire marshal staff spent on the issue, McCrary said he recommended that the cultural center pay a $1,000 fine. That was a reduction of more than 95 percent of the $22,000 then owed.
Two months later, the pastor stopped by the county campus to ask why he hadn’t received a bill for the fine. McCrary said it fell through the cracks.
Acting county planning director Larry Adamson, who oversees the fire marshal’s office and is the only planning official allowed to modify fines, said he approved the lower amount Wednesday. An invoice should go out soon.
An estimated 85 percent of code-enforcement cases are resolved voluntarily and never result in penalties, Adamson said. Language problems are rare for inspectors in the field, he said, and employees at customer-service desks can call a special service for help in more than 150 languages.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.