Op-Ed

Bevin invites tragedy by gutting state oversight of building codes

Medical personnel and volunteers worked May 29, 1977 in the Ft. Thomas Armory, where the bodies of the victims of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire were lined up for identification. The armory served as a makeshift morgue for the 165 fire victims.
Medical personnel and volunteers worked May 29, 1977 in the Ft. Thomas Armory, where the bodies of the victims of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire were lined up for identification. The armory served as a makeshift morgue for the 165 fire victims. Associated Press file photo

On May 28, 1977 a devastating fire swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate. It was discovered shortly before 9 p.m. and burned throughout the night, killing 165 people. Official investigations into what caused the fire were inconclusive, but the most commonly cited factor was the aluminum wiring.

That tragedy was eerily similar to the Dec. 2 fire that swept through an Oakland, Calif., warehouse killing 36 individuals; both buildings had questionable construction issues and inadequate entrances and exits.

The Kentucky fire brought statewide attention to the lack of building-code enforcement and put renewed emphasis on legislation that sought to provide proper oversight of the construction industry. It had passed the House and stalled in the Senate.

House Bill 44, with few modifications from the earlier bill, was prefiled by Rep. Hank Hancock on Oct. 24, 1977. Gov. Julian Carroll signed an executive order on Dec. 20, creating the Department of Housing, Buildings and Construction. The 1978 General Assembly concurred, creating the agency.

Because Carroll and the legislature worked together to address this tragedy, we are able to celebrate 39 years of protecting the public from a repeat. That’s why one must wonder at the thought process, or lack thereof, of the Bevin administration in its current effort to effectively gut the department and silence its correlative trades, architects, associations, code officials and professionals.

Gov. Matt Bevin’s Executive Order 2016-849, issued Nov. 29, violates or conflicts with over 30 enacted statutes and recklessly replaces the Kentucky Board of Housing with a 17-member advisory committee. The real danger is the abolition of the eight boards and committees that have been lifelines for protecting the public and ensuring an educated and professional workforce in all trades.

The restructuring has been couched as part of Bevin’s Red Tape Reduction Initiative, aimed at cutting excessive and complex regulatory burdens that stifle economic growth. This is exactly why the executive order is so damaging because, in fact, these eight committees meet quarterly to do the very thing that Bevin wants to accomplish.

Committees dealing with building, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, elevator and boiler codes make recommendations to the Board of Housing to remove outdated regulations and modernize, while remaining cognizant of effectiveness, necessity and cost. Cost is defined as balancing money and safety.

While the Governor’s Office mentioned administrative savings along with an additional $15,000 saving in board per diems, this is an apples/oranges situation.

Other than the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Department of Housing, Buildings and Construction does not operate on General Fund dollars. It operates on restricted funds generated by fees such as plan review, licensing, permits and inspection charges. These fees are set forth by these boards and committees, then monitored and spent to operate each of the respective divisions.

As for the per diem savings, the eight boards and committees are made up of professionals, trades people, business owners and others who travel to Frankfort to continually monitor the code changes that are affecting their areas. The reality is they make $50 a meeting before taxes are taken out. I would respectfully submit that these individuals are volunteering their time to make Kentucky a safer place to live, work and raise a family.

Codes are constantly changing. The system that Bevin is changing has allowed Kentucky to remain at the forefront of code adoption in a seamless, professional, common-sense manner. The goal is to prevent history from tragically repeating itself.

Philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

I would hope and pray that this executive order would be researched and re-evaluated in order to ensure the tragic history of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire and the Oakland warehouse fire will never be repeated in Kentucky.

Jack Coleman of Harrodsburg is a former deputy commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Housing, Buildings and Construction and former state lawmaker.

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