Schenectady County

Schenectady’s code department gets overhaul

Uniforms. Mandatory fees. Faster service. It’s a whole new code enforcement department.

Uniforms. Mandatory fees. Faster service. It’s a whole new code enforcement department.

Over the past seven weeks, consultant Tom Wilson has reorganized the department in an attempt to get property owners to actually repair their buildings.

It is the second attempt in a year to turn around the department, which has had limited success in forcing large landlords to maintain their buildings.

Wilson started with professional standards. Code enforcers were knocking on doors while wearing Led Zeppelin T-shirts, he said. They often showed up to council meetings in jeans. Now the city provides shirts and pants.

“They are code enforcement officers,” Wilson said, stressing the last word. “When they come up to your house, it should feel like code enforcement officers are there.”

He also divided the city into districts — the same districts as trash collection — and assigned one officer to each district.

Previously, a complex and often-changing system determined which inspections were assigned to which enforcer. And since no one had an assigned area, they could only cite violations if they happened to see one, or checked up on a complaint.

Now, Wilson hopes they will cite buildings before anyone complains.

“A guy gets familiar with an area. If a house goes vacant, he sees it going vacant. It allows us to be a little more proactive,” he said. “It also gives pride in ownership — ‘This is my district.’ ”

Wilson also began enforcing a rule that will make it sting a bit more to get a citation.

Until now, any property owner had a grace period in which to make repairs after receiving a citation. If the repairs were made on time, all fees and fines were erased.

But there’s supposed to be a $50 administrative fee attached to the citation. It pays for the officer’s time in inspecting the building before and after the repairs.

Now that fee will be charged to the owner even if the repairs are made on time.

Wilson is also making it easier for owners to make simple repairs without waiting weeks for a building permit.

Roofing, window and siding work can be done without a city engineer’s design approval, Wilson said.

An owner or contractor who shows up with a form for one of those jobs will now be able to get it approved immediately at City Hall.

“Previously I took it and put it in a pile and got to it a week or two later,” Wilson said. “Now they have the authority to issue small permits over the counter. Somebody can go online, pull a permit, walk in and hand it to us.”

He suspects more homeowners and contractors will get the permits now that there’s no waiting period. Making it easier will encourage people to follow the rules, he said.

Creating an effective department has been the focus in council meetings for years. Council members debated policy with former Building Inspector Keith Lamp, but could never get him to agree to do things their way. They even took a summer off to study the most deteriorated buildings themselves and come up with a plan, but nothing came together and the buildings just got worse.

At the same time, the council kept getting complaints. In one of many complaints, code enforcers cited homeowners for having house numbers that couldn’t be read from the street — instead of focusing their efforts on the burnt-out house across the street.

After one employee closed down several businesses for breaking a code that didn’t apply to them, former Mayor Brian U. Stratton assigned Director of Administration John Paolino to fix the department.

He sent employees to special trainings and began to drag the antiquated paper system into the 21st century. All that took more than a year. This summer, Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy hired Wilson to finish the job.

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