Livingstone president calls city’s presentation ‘irresponsible’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2014

SALISBURY — Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy Jenkins said city officials have made the college’s fire code violation issue appear worse than it is and called a presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting “inflammatory and irresponsible.”
Jenkins said City Manager Doug Paris knew when he hefted a box of files onto the dais containing the records of 1,023 violations that Livingstone had fixed all but eight.
“The way this was presented was inflammatory, and it was tantamount in my opinion to you walking into movie theater and, seeing that the exit light is not working properly, yelling ‘fire,’” Jenkins said. “Looking at what we are talking about here, it is not that serious.”
The outstanding code violations include missing or damaged fire doors and exposed wiring, he said, and replacement doors and light fixtures have been ordered. An improperly installed gate and a parking problem also have been fixed to accommodate emergency vehicles, he said.
Jenkins acknowledged that Livingstone has had more than 1,000 fire code violations in the past four years and accrued more than $63,000 in fines, the most in city history. He said the college has been working diligently to address the violations and said he thought the city agreed.
Jenkins said the last communication from the city to his office came a year ago when Fire Chief Bob Parnell thanked Jenkins for working to bring buildings into compliance. He said the city’s communication with other Livingstone staff members has been positive and cordial without dire warnings.
“Unfortunately, the presentation by the city manager to the City Council was inflammatory and irresponsible given the fact that the code violations to which he referred, as he described over the past four years, had all been resolved with the exception of fire doors that had been ordered to comply with his ruling that they did not meet code standards,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said no one at the college was notified that the issue would be discussed Tuesday. He said he had never heard the strong language used in a Feb. 28 letter from Parnell to the college’s board, where the fire chief said he had never seen a facility accumulate so many unaddressed violations or display such a lack of commitment to fire safety.
If the situation was so critical, Jenkins said, then Paris should have talked to him about it. The two have rubbed shoulders many times in the past year, Jenkins said, including shaking hands earlier Tuesday at the Mayor’s Spirit Luncheon, “with no indication that at four o’clock today, ‘We are really going to lower the boom.’”
Paris said during the past four years the Salisbury Fire Department has had dozens of meetings with Jenkins and his administration regarding the concerns. The city provided more than 30 emails between city officials and college employees in the past year and a timeline from August 2010 to March 2014 detailing violations, emails and meetings.
In November 2012, Fire Marshal Terry Smith sent a letter to Jenkins restating that Dancy Hall would not allowed to be occupied for the spring semester unless it was in full compliance.
Jenkins “was in contact with my office just two days ago about our concerns. He was not blindsided on this topic,” Paris said. “This is a topic on which the tread is well worn.”
Jenkins said he did contact City Hall last week after learning that city officials were requesting a meeting with the college’s board.
“I was dumbfounded. I was given no forewarning,” he said. “… Any meetings that I’ve ever had with city officials have always been amicable and never a confrontation of any kind.”
Paris said he presented the fire code violations Tuesday during his city manager comments because he needed to inform City Council before he and Parnell met with college trustees.
Reviewing the history of fire safety issues in a public meeting rather than behind closed doors should not be considered inflammatory but a sign of transparency, he said.
“Regarding the violations, we have heard the same message you were told, ‘We’re fixing it,’ for four years, during which time violations and fines continued to accumulate,” Paris told the Post. “We are skeptical to hear that same message again.”
There was confusion about how many violations the college currently has. When asked Tuesday by Councilman Pete Kennedy, Parnell said he was not sure but thought fewer than a dozen violations.
After the meeting, a city spokeswoman told the Post that Parnell misspoke and the college has 39 violations. In a March 27 email, Parnell told Paris there were eight violations remaining.
When asked for clarification Wednesday, Paris said there were 39 violations when the city contacted the college trustees in February but eight violations in March.
The $63,000 in fines indicates that the college was not repairing problems, Paris said.
“Fines are triggered as a result of duly noted and communicated fire code violations not being fixed in a timely manner,” he said. “If violations are fixed in a timely manner, no fines are triggered.”
Paris said the city’s goal is to get the campus to a point where it can regularly pass fire inspections. The city also needs action from Livingstone to cease tying up resources responding to false alarms.  
In the past two years, 68 percent of the 261 fire calls to Livingstone have been false alarms, Parnell said. Ironically, Paris said, the fire department responded to a false alarm at the college during Tuesday’s council meeting.
The false alarms are not counted in the 1,023 code violations, Parnell said.
“At this point, after four years, it is time we meet with the College Board of Trustees,” Paris said.
According to emails from the city to college officials, Salisbury Fire Capt. Rick Barkley repeatedly had to re-inspect Livingstone buildings because fire code violations were not repaired. Ongoing problems included exit signs not illuminated, fire extinguishers past due for service or discharged, exposed wiring, smoke detectors being tampered with, missing or damaged fire doors and missing reports.
Jenkins said he inherited a college campus with many issues in buildings and residence halls. Every building has been renovated during his tenure, Jenkins said, and many of the code violations in the past four years were not cited previously.
“The college has always moved as expeditiously as we could, depending on what the violation was,” Jenkins said. “There was never a time when we were not doing what we were supposed to, to the fullest extent that we were capable.”
Jenkins said he has repeatedly asked the city to waive or lower the fines as violations were repaired. To date, the college has not paid any fines, and Jenkins said he is working on a plan to pay.
As president, Jenkins said, his first priority is to guarantee a safe learning environment for the Livingstone family.
“My pledge is to continue to work cooperatively with the city of Salisbury to meet all rules and regulations and to continue to advance this institution in a positive manner, and I hope that we can move beyond this misunderstanding to a more productive collaboration,” he said.
The city will re-inspect on April 24.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.