Monday, April 21, 2008

Improving the DOB

If you intend to testify at the Assembly hearings on the Department of Buildings, take a look at these twelve ways to improve the Department of Buildings, reprinted from The Gowanus Lounge

1) Even if the Department of Buildings functioned like a well-oiled machine that rigorously enforced city regulations, its inspectors are still overwhelmed by the level of construction. The number of inspectors should be at least doubled, if not tripled. Until the numbers are increased, there should be a cap on the number of permits for major projects that can be issued.

2) The Department of Buildings should be removed from the purview of any of the city's economic development officials. It should be an independent regulatory agency whose prime mission is enforcement. Encouraging development and regulating it are not compatible tasks. Its work should be subject to regular audits by the City Comptroller.

3) Each Community Board should have an independent ombudsman to supervise the Department's work. That ombudsman would work to makes sure that citizen complaints are handled in a timely way and that complaints of inaction are investigated.

4) Dramatically increased monetary penalties for violations should be determined by a special blue ribbon commission made up of industry experts and citizens. The penalties should be set so that they act as a strong disincentive to violating regulations. Penalties should increase with each violation and building permits should also be suspended for the most serious violations starting with 30 days and escalating to 60 and 90 days. After repeated violations, permits should be terminated.

5) There should be criminal penalties for both developers and contractors whose actions or negligence result in loss of life.

6) Persistent offenders--contractors and developers--should be put on a special list for highly targeted enforcement and be subject to even higher fines. Firms with a pattern of violations, particularly ones involving safety violations and illegal work should have their ability to work in the city revoked for a period of time. Contractors found doing illegal work should be placed on probation after a certain number of offenses and be barred from doing business for subsequent offenses.

7) Create target enforcement neighborhoods in each borough based on the level of development. In Brooklyn, for instance, Williamsburg and Greenpoint should be a No. 1 priority. These target neighborhoods should be assigned significant numbers of inspectors to increase response times to complaints and to patrol construction sites.

8) The city should make necessary repairs to sites that are shut down if developers don't fix problem quickly, so that abandoned sites don't become hazards to the community. The city should charge back costs to developers and property owners and seize property for unpaid bills.

9) There should be a zero-tolerance approach to violations. Currently, contractors can violate many regulations with virtual impunity. Non-enforcement on small violations leads to bigger violations in a sort of Broken Windows Construction Phenomenon. There should also be 24-hour follow up and immediate dispatch of inspectors on some calls, clearly including life safety issues, but also involving quality of life complaints such as illegal and after-hours construction.

10) Permit fees should increased to fund the entire program of more rigorous inspection and the workforce necessary to do so.

11) Firms with a pattern of violations should be barred from bidding on city contracts or doing city work.

12) The city should issue a monthly "scorecard" in a simple format, grading developers and contractors on their violations or lack of them in each borough.

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