Less than a week after Schenectady’s chief building inspector died unexpectedly, the state Comptroller’s Office announced it’s conducting an audit focused on code enforcement in the city.
The comptroller said in a letter dated Feb. 14 that the audit will concentrate on the city's inspection of multiple dwelling buildings. The audit will cover the period of Jan. 1, 2015 through the end of the fieldwork process, which has yet to begin.
The audit’s scope would include documents pertaining to the March 2015 Jay Street fire, which killed four people and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office.
The announcement comes a few days after Eric Shilling, 51, died suddenly. Shilling served as the city’s building inspector and led its code enforcement department for about five years before dying last Friday.
On Wednesday, a counselor was available for grieving employees at City Hall. A private service for Shilling is being held later this week. Colleagues praised Shilling’s work ethic and passion for the city, saying that although he had frustrations with certain aspects of the job, he was professional and dedicated.
“He was someone who felt very strongly about his job,” said City Council President Leesa Perazzo. “In every conversation I had with Eric, it started with and ended with the safety of our citizens and their best interests.
“There were definitely times within Eric’s tenure with the city that he was frustrated,” she said, adding that she didn’t notice things escalating in recent weeks and months.
Perazzo delivered an emotional tribute to Shilling at the start of Monday’s City Council meeting, highlighting his energy, responsiveness and willingness to stand up for what’s right.
One longtime city employee, who asked not to be identified, said Shilling was having problems with management in City Hall, and that he had trouble getting the resources he needed for the Code Enforcement Department.
“We’re doing a number of major projects here, so yes, people are under a higher level of scrutiny and asked to perform at a higher level,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “We’re juggling a lot of projects, so there are normal conflicts that come up every day.”
McCarthy said Shilling was “a very energetic, visionary individual,” and a key player in the city’s revitalization efforts.
Steve Strichman, who spent 17 years as a planning and development officer in Schenectady, worked closely with Shilling, and the two remained in touch after Strichman took a job last June in Troy.
“He was very professional and had lots of integrity,” Strichman said. “He was in an environment where he was, I think, very understaffed given all the projects going on, but he always got everything done.”
Shilling was an honest, down-to-earth person, Strichman said. The two purchased a property in downtown Schenectady together that they were working on fixing up, he said.
Schenectady is one of roughly five municipal code enforcement offices across the state facing code enforcement audits, said Brian Butry, a spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office. There’s no specific formula for how the office selects a city to be audited, he said.
The audit’s scope would include documents pertaining to the Jay Street fire, which killed four people and displaced 60 others.
Hours after the fire, Shilling told The Gazette that code enforcement officials inspected all 20 apartments at 104 Jay St. the day before the blaze consumed the building. Several tenants in buildings that burned down said the structures hadn’t been properly maintained and that the alarms and sprinkler systems did not function.
Investigators ruled the cause of the fire was accidental. Several lawsuits have since been filed against the building owner and property manager and an investigation by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office is ongoing.
The audit will likely take between six and nine months to complete, Butry said. At its conclusion, fieldworkers will present results and recommendations to help improve the city’s operations.