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Schenectady responds to state Comptroller’s Office audit

Schenectady responds to state Comptroller’s Office audit

City claims it has already made some changes
Schenectady responds to state Comptroller’s Office audit
A Schenectady aerial platform truck pours water on ice-caked cars in front of 100-104 Jay St. in March 2015.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

SCHENECTADY — The city is taking corrective actions based on a January audit from the state Comptroller’s Office, even though it claimed in a response to the state that the audit contains “significant factual mistakes."

In the response, Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city has made changes to its Building Department, which oversees code enforcement. Those changes include creating a digital list of multiple dwelling units and inspecting buildings the city had previously neglected to inspect during the state-required three-year minimum interval.

RELATED: Former housing inspector cleared of major charges in fatal Jay Street fire

The city also pointed to changes made to the Building and Code Enforcement departments, announced last year, that included the hiring of Michael Eidens as the public safety commissioner. McCarthy said Eidens now oversees the Police and Fire departments, as well as the Building Department.

McCarthy said the consolidation of those departments will allow for improved coordination between them. The move also saw Assistant Police Chief Jack Falvo given additional duties as chief of the Buildings Department.

McCarthy previously said Falvo’s additional duties were assigned in response to a fire that killed four people on Jay Street in 2015.

Kenneth Tyree, who was accused of failing to do anything about the violations found in the building on Jay Street that led to the fire spreading quickly, was acquitted Tuesday of all charges related to the deaths of those four people.

The state Comptroller’s Office would not comment on the city’s response letter.

There were points made in the state’s audit that McCarthy claimed were incorrect. One was the claim that the city’s inspection rules do not comply with the state’s fire safety and property maintenance inspection guidelines.

McCarthy said the city's rules not only overlap the state’s, but they also include tougher requirements for property owners than the state’s uniform codes.

“It requires an inspection of most rental properties before a tenant begins living there and requires another inspection upon any change in tenancy,” McCarthy said in his response. “The effect of this is that we routinely inspect multiple dwelling properties much more frequently than once every three years.”

McCarthy also said nothing about the city’s inspection rules hinder it from performing fire safety and property management inspections.

“It is just an additional tool which complements it,” McCarthy wrote.

The state’s report, which was obtained by The Daily Gazette, also faulted the city for relying on apartment owners to volunteer their buildings for inspections when there is a change in tenant or when a building changes ownership. 

McCarthy took issue with that claim.

“That is completely incorrect and akin to saying that speed limits rely solely on on voluntary compliance,” McCarthy wrote.

He said property owners who don’t comply with the city's rules are penalized.

Still, the city plans to amend its codes to require the inspection of multiple-dwelling units once every three years, “irrespective of tenant occupancy or property owner changes," McCarthy said.

In the city’s response, which was obtained by The Daily Gazette and marked “confidential," McCarthy said the city has prosecuted more than 600 incidents in which property owners failed to comply with the city’s building codes. He also said there have been more than 40,000 misdemeanor charges filed against landlords related to code violations since 2013.

McCarthy, who wrote and signed the city's response to the audit, declined to comment on the information in his response, including information related to the misdemeanor charges.

“The [Comptroller’s Office] asked we not comment on this,” McCarthy said. “I suggest you go back to whoever gave you [the city's response] and ask them.”

In the city's response to the audit, McCarthy wrote about the penalties meted out for violations.

“These prosecutions have resulted in substantial fines, incarceration, and most importantly, with the owners coming into compliance with our [rental certificate ordinance],” McCarthy wrote.

The Comptroller’s Office audited Schenectady and five other municipalities' building and code enforcement departments. Its audit of Schenectady covered the period from Jan. 1, 2015, to Feb. 21, 2017, a period that includes the Jay Street fire.

The audit said that of the city’s 1,440 multiple-dwelling units, code enforcement officials had only inspected 756, or 53 percent, within the state’s required three-year cycle.

McCarthy said in his response that since the audit took place, the city has inspected 288 of the 684 units it failed to inspect during the three-year window. 

Chris Morris, director of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, said she hasn’t noticed much of a change in the operation of the city’s Building Department. However, she does know that Chris Lunn, the city’s new chief building inspector, plans to make changes.

“[Landlords] will anticipate these changes because they are being promised, even though we don’t know what exactly they are,” Morris said.

In its audit, the state also said the city’s list of multiple-dwelling units only listed 94 properties. After asking the city to develop a list of potential multiple-dwelling units, the state Comptroller’s Office said it compared that list to the city’s tax rolls and new multiple-dwelling unit permits and found the city actually had 1,440 multiple dwelling units.

McCarthy said in his list of proposed changes that the city will use the state's list and upload it to a new computer program, Municity. McCarthy said the new software should allow the city to have “a more comprehensive and trackable listing” of its multiple-dwelling units.

The Building Department will also develop new protocols to ensure it revisits each property within three years and will make sure to update its database regularly.

“These structural improvements and statutory changes should enable us to significantly improve the effectiveness of our fire safety and property maintenance inspections of multiple dwellings it the city,” McCarthy wrote.

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