Once upon a time municipal government in New Britain had a Building Commission – a five-member body that oversaw code enforcement, permits and reviewed variance requests. Every month appointed citizens reviewed inspections, monitored activities and made requests of inspectors if they knew of any code problems.
For safe housing advocates the building enforcement has been made worse by the elimination of a certificate of occupancy law that went out before the old commission was eliminated.
Charter change did away with the Building Commission six years ago and City Councils ever since have failed to adopt a building board to deal with persistent blight, abandonment and code issues. While the current Charter did eliminate many boards and commissions it gave the Mayor and Council power to establish them by ordinance instead of the lengthy referendum process at any time.
At long last the City Council is set to reinstitute the commission at its July meeting in the aftermath of laudable press coverage by the New Britain Herald’s Rick Guinness on code problems, squatters and evictions at properties owned by out-of-town landlords. Guinness and the Herald, despite their limits at the corporate owned hometown daily, are turning in some of the best local journalism in years on the housing issue. More on that in a subsequent post.
Although Mayor Stewart has been against reinstituting the commission, he should work with the Council and, as the appointing authority, give appointees an opportunity to improve code enforcement and housing policy that has been neglected for a number of years. The reality is a new Building Commission will be as effective as the Mayor wants it to be.
The need for more oversight of the Building Department and more accountability in this area of services was evident at the July 9th Council meeting.
Councillors were told that it will take up to $40,000 just to put reports on building-code violations together from the building and health departments and the Fire Marshall’s office. According to the Herald story, “finding out what actions have been taken against building-code violators will cost the city $40,000” in administrative and overtime costs. To anyone outside the City Hall bureaucracy, the figure sounds preposterous. It raises the issue of whether accurate logs and records are being kept on a day to day basis at these enforcement departments. The Council appropriately rejected the $40,000 to get the information, but you have to wonder whether they were snookered into believing that it would or should take that much to get data that should be available at their next Council meeting. “Along with giving the $40,000 estimate, the city plan, fire, health and licenses, permits and inspections departments said they will begin keeping better track, electronically, of violation information,” the Herald reported. That admission alone illustrates the need for more citizen oversight over a department that, after the Police Department, fields the highest number of complaints and disputes from residents.
Put simply, a dubious price tag to get some basic data that should already be available has been thrown in the way of improving enforcement and making a Building Commission an effective tool to reduce blight.