DECONSTRUCTING THE DEFICIT

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A state assemblymember offered Mayor Bloomberg some advice last week that he says could help close the budget gap while improving hundreds of dilapidated buildings.

In a report on hazardous code violations in the city’s commercial and residential buildings, Assemblymember Scott Stringer claimed the city failed to collect $14 million in fines in 2001 and the first half of 2002.

At the same time, says the study, 13,000 violations have gone unresolved.

“The city is losing millions of dollars in revenue every year because there is no real incentive for landlords to pay,” said Stringer. “It makes no sense that the agency responsible for enforcing building codes has no power over their only clear enforcement weapon, payment of fines,” he said.

Under the current system, if a landlord fails to fix a violation, his case goes to court. If a fine is issued, the case is passed to the Environmental Control Board to handle collection. If the control board does not collect, collection responsibilities then fall to the Department of Finance.

To change the system, Stringer recommends that the city seek out funding to boost its army of 250 inspectors, and appoint an oversight committee to the Department of Buildings, the Environmental Control Board and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Stringer also challenged the self-certification process, which allows landlords to determine when a violation is corrected. He suggests the city conduct random checks of buildings undergoing renovations.

At least one of his proposals may not be far off. To step up fine collections, the Department of Finance is looking into creating a more integrated system with other agencies, so that “when we make some kind of adjustment to a property owner’s information, the other agencies will be updated at the same time,” said agency spokesman Rob Roman.

In its defense, the Department of Buildings says it is working on making sure the thousands of outstanding violations are corrected. As for the fines, agency spokesperson Sid Dinsay said they will be collected.

He added, however, that he disagrees with the conclusion of Stringer’s study. The pressure to pay fines is more important than the fines themselves, he said. “I would think [the threat of] fines and the possibility of going to court are pretty good incentives for an owner to correct illegal conditions,” he said.

Small building owners agree. “If the owner has a serious violation and hasn’t cured it, something is really wrong,” said Roberta Bernstein of the Small Property Owners of New York. “Either the owner doesn’t deserve to be an owner because he’s irresponsible, or he’s in real financial trouble and fining him only exacerbates the problem.”