On a narrow downtown street, near where Interstate-394 connects the city of Minneapolis with the western suburbs, Michael Raeker, a Minneapolis fire inspector, is out on his beat.
Flashlight in hand, he peers through the window of a vacant storefront. This building, which dominates a big corner piece of real estate, has generated a lot of complaints.
"People in here late at night, coming in here using these openings as bathrooms, which kind of creeps you out when you're just standing here, and just rundown like a lot of this on the outside," Raeker said.
He points to where a water leak has damaged the wall. Bricks beneath the window have begun falling out, leaving room for rats to get in. And all the old equipment and building materials cluttering up the inside would make a fire more dangerous for firefighters.
"Something like that is going to happen at 3 or 4 in the morning, and they're walking around with flashlights in all their gear," Raeker said. "If it's a smoke condition, there's little to no visiblity, so all this stuff is kind of everywhere."
As the recession drags on, more commercial building owners are falling behind on taxes. The number of owners becoming delinquent is up 70 percent over the last two years, with hundreds already behind. City officials worry that if the trend continues, the number of vacant commercial buildings could skyrocket.
Until now, complaints about commercial buildings mostly had to work their way through the City Council before the fire department could inspect them. The time that took allowed problem buildings to sink further into disrepair.
The city's new inspections program aims to change that. The new Comprehensive Commercial Inspection Program will subject all commercial buildings to a full code inspection at least once every five years. The more problematic buildings are, the more often they'll be inspected.
There are more than 5,800 commercial buildings in the city. To help pay for the new inspections, owners will have to pay a new fee. Fees are based on square footage, and most will pay less than $100 a year. The biggest will pay more than $900.
A broad coalition of owners fought the plan, but the City Council passed it anyway.
Kent Warden heads the Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association, representing 500 commercial owners. His group lobbied successfully to get the fees lowered slightly.
Warden said while the fees aren't high enough to push people out of business, they unfairly burden larger buildings.
"The kinds of buildings that we represent, which are the buildings that generate the major source of the revenue for the program, are not the ones that they need to worry about," said Warden. "I think it is probably the smaller and older buildings that don't have full-time management, and are probably not kept up to fire code the way they need to be."
Big downtown buildings have the money for full-time staff and special fire prevention equipment. So, they'll likely be inspected just every five years. Problem buildings will be inspected more often.
Warden said the plan has better-kept buildings essentially subsidizing problem properties. He said a per-inspection fee would make more sense.
Fire Marshal Bryan Tyner said the city did everything it could to keep fees as low as possible. One way is by using existing crews for inspections so they don't have to hire and train new staff.
"In the fire prevention bureau, internally, we have been trying to figure out a way to be able to get a program to be able to do this," Tyner said. "And at the same time we had to be able to pay for it, because taxes are tight. They are not going to just give you the money to do it. So in the end, this is what we came up with."
Not all property owners objected to the new inspections plan. Westy Graves' business is just a few doors down from a dilapidated vacant building. He sympathizes with owners who resent the new fee, but said the program is necessary.
"More taxes? I'm not for more taxes, believe me, I'm not. But as far as more inspections, I think yes, they should. The city has got to do more with what they have and that is the real challenge," Graves said.
Graves said he hopes the new inspections will prevent more buildings from becoming problems in the first place.