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Officials call for state audit of Town of Hempstead Building Department

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Disagreements within the Hempstead Town council on how to effectively revitalize the town’s troubled Building Department — a subject of myriad complaints from residents — came to a standstill when the Republican majority shot down Supervisor Laura Gillen’s proposed audit from an outside consultant in July. Gillen, renewing a hard-line stance, stood with State Sen. John Brooks on Monday as they called on the Department of State to audit the Building Department.

At a news conference, Gillen said her office is reviewing numerous “disturbing” complaints from both residents and town employees about the department. “These allegations include delaying the issuance of select building permits, disregarding or looking the other way on certain code violations and selectively expediting permits for favorite homeowners or businesses,” Gillen said. “That’s not acceptable and it’s not safe.”

Gillen and Brooks reached out to the state’s committee on investigations and government operations, requesting that the alleged misconduct be investigated. According to an Aug. 5 report, the committee “strongly urge[d] the Department of State to formally and fully investigate the Hempstead Building Department and consider further intervention, including . . . the placement of a state monitor.”

Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, said his office still receives Hurricane Sandy-related complaints pertaining to the department on a regular basis. “Many people were not given information on the status of their home,” he said. “Assistance programs that they could’ve applied for are gone, and in some cases people are being asked to return significant amounts of money to various agencies.”

While he did not provide a clear timeframe as to when the audit would take place, Brooks said it would assess current processes of the Building Department and provide recommendations for how it should operate going forward, which he said was “critically important.”

Earlier this year, Gillen pushed a $155,000 contractual audit with Manhattan firm FTI Consultants, which was tabled in February. Her latest effort for an audit, a $330,000 proposed contract with Manhattan-based firm Ernst & Young — a plan backed by Brooks — was denied in a 5-2 vote at a Town Board meeting on July 2.

In deciding to give the bid to Ernst & Young, Gillen had sought to involve all Town Board members and Building Department personnel, including its commissioner, she told the Herald Life last month. Officials and other council members were involved in the months-long discussion.

Gillen was “blindsided,” however, she said, when Republican council members proposed a five-point plan that they said would suffice in addressing the department’s issues. The proposal suggests: extending evening hours and implementing weekend hours; adding overtime and hiring more staff; starting a resident complaint resolution service; designating a department employee to serve as the director of innovation; and creating of an ad-hoc audit and review team, made up of volunteers with professional experience.

Gillen disagreed with the plan’s efficacy. Last month she argued that the expenses of the five-point plan would be above that of the audit, noting that having a “skeleton crew” on weekends could cost upward of $22,000 a week. With increased hours, renewed resources and a new director of innovation position, the plan might be more than $100,000 a week, she added.

After the five-point proposal, 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.

Gillen denounced the lack of support from her Republican colleagues on the council to institute an independent auditor. “I have been met with constant obstruction and excuses about why this audit could not go forward,” she said. “Continued inaction on behalf of the Building Department ... has left us no other choice but to hand this department over to the state.”

In a statement to the Herald Life, Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said she welcomed any review that would “yield a positive outcome for our residents and consumers,” but remained committed to the five-point plan.

Councilman Bruce Blakeman recognized that the Building Department has room for improvement, but called the request for a state audit a “pre-election stunt.” “The Town Board has initiated new reforms in the Building Department,” he said in a statement, referring to the five-point plan, “and we are addressing those issues.”