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NYS Senators' Report Calls For Code Enforcement Improvements

NYS Senator James Skoufis in Newburgh March 8, 2019 announcing code enforcement investigation

Two Democratic New York state senators have released a report on code enforcementfollowing a six-month investigation. There are a number of findings and more than 10 legislative recommendations. The report singles out a town in Rockland County for alleged persistent noncompliance.

In February, state Senator James Skoufis, Chair of the Senate Committee on Investigations & Government Operations, in coordination with Senator Brian Kavanagh, Chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development, opened an investigation into code enforcement practices in New York. The investigation focused on four municipalities: the Cities of Albany, Newburgh and Mount Vernon, and the Town of Ramapo.

“There’s really been a systematic failure at all levels of government to adequately prioritize code enforcement in New York state, and we just have to do better,” Skoufis says.

Skoufis says, in general, there is a need for more code enforcement officers.

“For example, the city of Mount Vernon is perhaps most egregious in this category where up until very, very recently, literally, a few days ago, they had one code enforcement officer for 70,000 people in the City of Mount Vernon,” says Skoufis. “It is humanly impossible for one person to cover that kind of ground and keep that entire community safe from code violations and safety violations.”

Skoufis also cites difficulties in finding who should be held accountable for violations at properties owned by LLCs. And he says the penalties for code violations are too low, recounting how stakeholders say that slumlords treat the fines as the cost of doing business.

“They pay their utility bill every month, they pay their garbage bill and then they pay the code violation bill, and they don’t even think twice about it,” Skoufis says.

The senator from Orange County says fines for violations that put people in harm’s way should be at least a few thousand dollars and increase from there if the violation is not corrected; not just a few hundred dollars. He says the time that these cases languish in courts, sometimes for years, is a statewide problem. Skoufis holds up the Rockland Codes Initiative in Rockland County as a model for filling a void and supplementing code enforcement efforts. Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day says the effort that began in 2015 has been highly successful.

“We have taken in over 5,000 complaints in [since] 2015 since its inception; inspections of over 22,000; violations of over 28,000; and over $1.7 million of fines were issued,” says Day. “And, before people ask, yes, most of that money has been collected.”

Once a complaint is made, inspectors from the county Department of Health visit the location and look for conditions that violate the Sanitary Code.

“Egress issues, for example, is one, so a lot of when these walls go up, for example, and risk firefighters’ lives, this can be addressed through the Sanitary Code,” says Day. “Improper lighting, improper electricity, all of these things can fall into the Sanitary Code.”

Skoufis says a number of county executives reached out to his office during the investigation to ask the team to look into problem municipalities. Skoufis says he could not expand the investigation with such limited resources, but urges county officials to read the report and look to Rockland County as a model. Again, Day:

“The fines are significant. The fines under the Sanitary Code are a maximum of $2,000 per violation per day. The first slumlord that we went after, we hit him with a $38,000 fine. He nearly fell down. Nobody gives those kind of fines,” Day says. “And what happens, just so people understand, the goal here is turn slumlords into landlords. The goal here is ensure we have healthy, proper housing for the people of this county. And we are now doing the rental registry as part of this effort, so it’s giving us a good sense of the housing stock in the county, which is critical for planning purposes here in Rockland.”

Newburgh also has a rental registry. Ramapo Town Supervisor Michael Specht says the town is reviewing the report, and will be issuing a response shortly. The Democrat says that while the report contains a number of insightful recommendations for new legislation and statewide improvements, it also contains erroneous statements and unsupported conclusions specifically about Ramapo.

The report says that over the last five years, several Town and Building Department officials in the Town of Ramapo have been investigated, suspended or indicted on charges relating to fraud and corruption. There was a Department of State oversight officer assigned to Ramapo, an agreement that ended in 2018. Skoufis believes such an agreement should be reinstated. Ramapo Supervisor Specht says the state found that the town was meeting state code enforcement standards and determined further monitoring was no longer necessary. Again, Rockland County Executive Day:

“And, again, I’m throwing open a welcome mat to the Town of Ramapo to do what the other four towns do, join with us and work together to ensure that housing is safe, that people’s lives aren’t put at risk and you don’t further risk the lives of our heroic volunteer firefighters,” Day says.

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