The Hempstead Town Board voted on Feb. 5 to table the hiring of an outside consultant to audit the Town Building Department. The roughly $155,000 measure was intended to offer recommendations on how to streamline department processes and address the late issuance of mandatory elevation notices for homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The vote came after roughly a dozen comments of support from building and real estate experts, and impassioned pleas from Sandy victims who in some cases were told by Building Department officials that they needed to elevate their homes, many years later, due to flood damage they sustained in the storm.
“This [request for proposal] would allow for a full operational audit of our Building Department to find areas where improvements can be made,” Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Democrat, said, making her case for the audit. “This is a crucial investment for the town, moving forward it’s simply a good thing to do for everyone involved.”
The issues with the Town Building Department as highlighted by the experts and residents who spoke, and which the audit was meant to find solutions for, involve long wait times for the granting of permits for construction as simple as building a deck and, more seriously, the department’s botched response to Hurricane Sandy, and the process by which it determined whether homes needed to be elevated in order to remain compliant with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations.
Because town building officials had not inspected Sandy-damaged homes, they instead relied on residents filing building permits for Sandy-related repairs before they could determine whether a home needed to be elevated.
The process shifted the onus onto homeowners to report to building officials what kinds of flood repairs they had performed or otherwise unwittingly risk losing their FEMA-subsidized flood insurance.
In some cases, residents would file permits for construction unrelated to Sandy, only for the application to trigger a cross reference with an internal document — compiled by inspectors in the aftermath of the storm, and referred to as a preliminary damage assessment — of homes they believed had received flood damage. Homeowners would next be asked to provide information on Sandy repairs, and then be told that they would need to elevate.
In other cases, residents had purchased homes, repaired in the aftermath of the storm, only to discover that they, too, would need to elevate after visiting the Building Department for unrelated reasons. It was for these homeowners, in particular, that Gillen said she hoped the proposed audit would find a solution.
Currently, the department has records of roughly 8,600 Sandy-damaged homes that have not filed for permits, and may still be issued mandatory elevation notices, years after elevation-assistance grant programs such as New York Rising stopped accepting applications.
Democratic Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, however, took issue with the firm selected for the audit, the Manhattan-based FTI Consultants, a business advisory agency, saying that she was unaware of who they were, and that the board had recently hired a compliance officer who should look into any problems with the Building Department.
Town Attorney Joe Ra acknowledged that the responsibilities of the compliance officer extend only to ensuring that town contracts go through a fair competitive bidding process.
Additionally, Republican Councilman Ed Ambrosino expressed skepticism that FTI had offered the lowest responsible price for the contract, noting that of the bids received for the audit, FTI was the highest. He called for an immediate tabling of the measure.
Gillen explained that the lower bids, such as one for roughly $39,000, did not match the services requested, disqualifying them. She added that a bipartisan committee had reviewed the RFPs and bids with input from representatives of the town attorney’s office and Building Department.
Republican Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said that, while she sympathized with the Sandy victims who spoke, many of whom live in her district, she would like the town’s compliance officer to review the contract before voting to approve it. She promised to revisit the vote at the board’s Feb. 19 meeting.
Gillen argued that considering the scale of the work the department performs within one of the largest towns in the country, it would be good government to ensure that it operates in the most streamlined manner possible. “Our Building Department should be one that other towns want to emulate,” she said.