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Town supervisor presses for Building Department audit

Gillen pushes council for action after Republican five-point plan proposal

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Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen’s latest effort to hire an outside consultant to audit the Town Building Department was again shot down at the July 2 Town Board meeting. During the session, the council’s Republican majority instead proposed a five-point-plan, which members said they believed would suffice in fixing the department that receives myriad complaints from residents. Gillen stridently disagreed.

The Building Department is plagued by complaints about poor service, backlogged permits and delayed notices for mandatory home elevations due to Hurricane Sandy, according to Gillen. She sought an audit earlier this year through a $155,000 contract with Manhattan-based FTI Consultants — which was tabled in February. The measure, she said, according to the request for proposals for the contract, would offer outside, independent recommendations on how to streamline department processes.

In her renewed effort to revamp the troubled department, Gillen sought to involve all Town Board members and Building Department personnel, including its commissioner, in choosing a new bid, she said. The highest scorer, decided by the officials, was Ernst and Young, a Manhattan-based firm, for a $330,000 contract. Other council members, Gillen said on Monday, were involved in that discussion.

The audit, however, was denied in a 5-2 vote, with Democratic Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby voting in favor of it.

Gillen said she was unaware of the Republican majority’s idea — a five-point plan that calls for increased staffing and working hours — before the meeting. Dissenting board members argued that the expense of an audit was not justified, and that it should have gone to a lower bidder. Lower bidders, Gillen responded, did not offer all the services required.

The five-point proposal suggests extended evening hours and the start of weekend hours; overtime and the hiring of more staff; a resident complaint resolution service; the designation of a department employee to serve as the director of innovation; and the creation of an ad-hoc audit and review team, made up of volunteers with professional experience.

While comparing the two proposals is not “apples to apples,” Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said on Monday, she argued that the department needs “boots on the ground, right now.” She added that the $330,000 audit would not have included the implementation of any recommendations made by the auditors. Implementation, she said, could have increased the cost to more than $500,000.

At the same time, King Sweeney said, the Republicans’ five-point plan could cost upward of $500,000 as well.

Gillen argued that the expenses of the five-point plan would be well above that of the audit, noting that having a “skeleton crew” come in on weekends could cost upward of $22,000 a week. With increased hours, renewed resources and a new position of director of innovation on top of that, the plan could cost more than $100,000 a week, Gillen said.

The town has roughly 12 planning examiners to process nearly 10,000 applications every year, according to Newsday. The number of staff who would work weekends was unclear.

“They’re just trying to throw money at the problem — taxpayers’ money,” Gillen said. “It’s a bunch of nonsense. They’re saying that if we run the department late at night and on weekends, it’ll automatically run better. They don’t know that.”

Gillen also argued that members of the Town Board do not have expertise in running a building department, making their recommendations moot. An independent audit would bring more confidence, she said, with feedback from building management experts.

At a news conference on July 1 at Newbridge Road Park in Bellmore, the day before the meeting, State Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, stood at Gillen’s side in support of her plan. Following several complaints to his office, Brooks decided to get involved in what he said is a critical issue.

“The $300,000 was well worth the money,” Brooks said in a follow-up interview after the audit proposal was defeated. “I have a great concern that if a hurricane hits us at any time, homeowners will find out they’re not eligible for assistance because they needed to lift their homes.”

At the press briefing, Merrick resident Robin Archbold shared her firsthand experience — and her dismay. After her home was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Archbold began repair work. In January 2013, she went to the Building Department and was issued a building permit. By April 2014, construction was complete, after months during which her family was displaced.

“I moved back in and went for my certificate of completion at the Building Department,” she said, “and was told that a substantial damage letter was issued and I needed to elevate — after my home was completely repaired.”

Archbold considered herself fortunate, she said. With assistance from the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program, her house has been raised.

At the press briefing, Archbold also displayed Building Department documents, issued under then Supervisor Kate Murray, that marked her home “red” — needing to be raised. There was no inspector’s signature, and it was “half filled out,” she said. Items were also crossed out, despite the fact that the top of the document read that such marks would make it void. Archbold also claimed that the document, which was initially a repair permit, was changed to an elevation permit without her approval.

Brooks said that the Republicans’ five-point plan would bring “nothing but increased taxes,” adding that he doubted that those present when the problems began could fix them now.

Gillen and Brooks would be discussing their next steps, they said.

“The Republican majority does not want outside eyes looking into the Building Department,” Gillen said. “What are they trying to hide?”