SCHENECTADY -- After seven months without a permanent building inspector, the city's new head of code enforcement is hoping to bring a fresh perspective to a critical aspect of Schenectady's operations.
Christopher Lunn, 43, comes with more than 25 years of building, construction and general contractor experience. He officially started as building inspector on Sept. 5, replacing Eric Shilling, who died in February. He intends to move to the city from Albany, he said.
“Hopefully, by coming in as an outsider, I’m bringing a new set of eyes from outside the department that’s going to have good scrutiny and hold everybody accountable,” Lunn said.
The building inspector role is one of two key positions recently filled following lengthy vacancies, Mayor Gary McCarthy announced this week. A new director of operations was also brought on to handle communications, planning and other responsibilities.
Lunn’s position is a critical one for a city simultaneously dealing with blighted properties and a plethora of new development in its downtown corridor. He is also tasked with providing leadership and direction for a department that has drawn criticism from residents and recently found itself in the shadow of a criminal indictment.
Code inspector Kenneth Tyree was charged in March with four counts of manslaughter for his role in a 2015 fatal fire on Jay Street. Prosecutors allege Tyree inspected the apartment complex's fire alarm system the day before the blaze and that he either saw or should have seen the faulty equipment and called for a “fire watch.”
He later lied to investigators when he told them the alarm was operational when he inspected it, prosecutors said. Tyree is also charged with lying on an employment application by failing to disclose a pair of felonies from decades earlier.
Tyree was fired immediately after the charges came down, but many city residents said in recent interviews they find it difficult to trust the codes department, or they find it unreliable.
Ensuring buildings are complying with fire safety regulations is a priority for Lunn, he said, and he acknowledged there’s a need to restore trust among residents.
“I think we can take the lessons we’ve learned that we need to make sure we double-check everybody’s work, and everybody is going to be held accountable,” Lunn said. “It’s an unfortunate fact what happened, and I don’t want a repeat incident of that. But I have a great staff here, and I don’t want that to reflect on them.”
Another focus will be dealing with blight and indifferent landlords who allow their properties to fall into disrepair, he said.
The relationship between the building inspector and city landlords is an important one, said Chris Morris, president of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change. She believes it’s up to Lunn to maintain the relationship between the city and its landlords that Shilling, the previous building inspector, built up.
“The people who don’t care (about their properties), they are going to be written up. They will be held accountable; at this point I just can’t say where exactly I’m going to take it,” he said. “Things are going to change, I promise you.”
Some residents have wondered if the department is understaffed and unable to keep up with the number of complaints. Lunn has been conducting a self-audit of the department since he arrived, saying it’s too early to tell if more employees are required.
“Obviously, every department wants more people, and I couldn’t say I didn’t want more people,” he said. “But I really can’t tell yet what the daily workload requires and what a true amount should be.”
In the meantime, a short-term goal is to digitize the building permit system, Lunn said. Allowing consumers and builders to apply for permits online would make the process easier and encourage business and development in the city, he said.
Other municipalities use such a system and have had success, Lunn said. The city is partnering with Amsterdam, Gloversville and Troy in an ongoing initiative to digitize the code enforcement process, which will increase efficiency and record keeping, Mayor McCarthy has previously said.
“Everybody’s busy, and if I can save a half-hour out of somebody’s life, I think that would be a positive development,” Lunn said.