Against the backdrop of the Jay Street fire tragedy that claimed the lives of four people, it is important to reach out to our community to talk about changes being made in the Schenectady Buildings Department.
Some of the changes are visible and some are not. Some changes will provide short-term benefits, but all will provide long-term improvement in fire safety and property maintenance inspections within the city.
The basic purpose of code enforcement is to protect the health and safety of our residents. This requires more than issuing tickets and taking code violators to court.
The housing stock in the city has been stressed for many years, and solving the problems will necessarily require a multi-faceted approach. There is no silver bullet. We cannot simply hire or train more code enforcement officers and think we have done our job.
We have developed a plan that involves short-term goals and improvements and long-term objectives.
Some of the short-term changes involve upgrading the operation of our housing code enforcement procedures, as well as structural improvements within the Buildings Department.
A summary of some of these changes and improvements that we plan, or have already implemented and intend to make permanent, are as follows:
1. We hired Chris Lunn as Chief Building Inspector in September of 2017. The guidelines for his role involve transparency, professionalism and a mandate to promote the life- safety of all City residents. He brings 27 years of building trades experience and a can-do attitude to the job.
2. In December 2017, we issued an executive order placing the Office of the Building Inspector and the Bureau of Code Enforcement under the direct supervision of the commissioner of public safety.
Since the commissioner has supervisory authority over the police and fire departments, we can now ensure there is good coordination between these departments.
3. In early January, Assistant Police Chief Jack Falvo was appointed as chief of the Buildings Department. Chief Falvo has extensive experience supervising the Field Services Bureau and brings that skill-set to the Buildings Department. Chief Falvo will help coordinate the efforts of the police, fire and buildings departments to make sure that inspections and enforcement are thorough, timely, and effective.
4. The Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University of Albany engages in research, consulting and shared partnership projects at the local, state and federal level.
We have partnered with the cities of Amsterdam and Gloversville in working with CTG and are implementing a program/protocol called Municity. This partnership will help us combat urban blight and building inspection issues with a shared-data approach, enabling us to track problem properties and owners. This new program has the potential to be a model for statewide implementation, and there is considerable work being done to make this happen.
5. We have begun providing Municity training sessions for staff members. Our target is to have the program fully operational by October 2018. Municity will enable us to establish a comprehensive and trackable database of all multiple dwellings in the city, as well as closely monitor inspections and violations.
6. There have been several recent significant staffing changes. We are moving three housing inspectors that were formerly assigned to other city departments over to the Buildings Department.
This will result in a larger staff and we will have the ability to provide street facilities, nuisance and housing inspection coverage for the city. Also, all inspectors will receive cross-training and be designated code enforcement officers so that every officer will have the same enforcement authority. This approach will give the city greater staffing, better training, improved efficiency and allow the Buildings Department to take a proactive approach to further address life-safety issues and complaints and reduce blight.
To implement this, we persuaded a recently retired senior code enforcement officer to return on a part-time basis to provide in-service training and ensure that best code enforcement practices become consistent and institutionalized.
7. The inspection of all multiple dwellings for code- and life-safety compliance is a priority for us, and we plan to have each and every one inspected within the next several weeks. We have worked hard to make sure the database of our multiple dwellings is accurate and will monitor it closely. The Municity program will provide a real-time listing of multiple dwellings with a built-in tickler system, ensuring inspection and follow-up within three years. To formalize this, we will ask the City Council to amend the City Code to require inspection of multiple dwelling properties at least once every three years, irrespective of tenant occupancy or property owner changes.
8. Once Municity is fully operational, we should have the ability to provide quarterly reports on the city’s website. This will enable us to promote transparency, as well as provide relevant information and announcements to the public about code enforcement.
9. As part of this effort, and not limited to multiple dwellings, we are conducting a complete review and revision of our existing policies and procedures to make sure that the operation of the Buildings Department reflects best practices. Assistant Corporation Counsel Krystina Smith has been instrumental in this effort. Our efforts will be most successful if we also review our fees and penalty structures for code violations to make sure that we are properly incentivizing good and poor landlords.
Strategic fee/penalty planning should encourage landlords to take care of their property. We averaged 990 code violation prosecution filings per year from 2013 through 2017, with average annual fines of $97,290.
10. We are preparing an internal Code Inspection Curriculum (based upon the Department of State training program) for in-service code enforcement officer training, which we will require for all our officers. This will be supplemented by the required annual Department of State training.
11. As part of our long-term planning process, and because the goal of code enforcement is to upgrade the quality and life-safety of the housing and building stock, we have begun out reach to the neighborhood and landlord and tenant associations.
We are fortunate that Schenectady has always been, and continues to be, a neighborhood-based city. That is one of our great strengths.
It is important to recognize that there are limited resources available to us, and strategic management is a key to getting the best results.
Many effective solutions to current urban issues arise from public/private working partnerships.
These structural and policy improvements should enable us to significantly improve the effectiveness of our code enforcement and fire safety and property maintenance inspections in the city.
The best results possible are likely to involve help and assistance from sources not usually involved in traditional code enforcement.
Nineteenth-century solutions to challenges in 2018 are likely to have little chance of success.
There are existing opportunities to achieve solutions to the city’s housing stock problem. We will continue to work together to make that happen.
Gary R. McCarthy is the mayor of the city of Schenectady. Michael C. Eidens is the city’s public safety commissioner.