DeSena ready to act on Building Department audit recommendations

DeSena ready to act on Building Department audit recommendations
North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena (middle) speaks in front of the town's building department alongside Councilmembers Mariann Dalimonte (left) and Veronica Lurvey (right) in 2022. (Photo by Brandon Duffy)

The Town of North Hempstead’s Building Department has been plagued with issues that span over a dozen years, but now with the final results of the county’s audit, Supervisor Jennifer DeSena is looking into how the department moves forward.

“If you read this report, it’s clear that over 15 years of problems aren’t going away overnight,” DeSena said in a statement to Blank Slate Media. “You don’t implement 83 pages of recommendations carelessly. It has to be done deliberately and with great attention to permanent fixes. No one said it was going to be easy, but we’re on the right side of it and we know exactly what our residents deserve.”

Now with a Republican-controlled Town Board, the GOP’s DeSena told Newsday the town will be implementing changes based on the audit.

In 2007, five Building Department officials were indicted after a 16-month investigation by then-Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice for receiving favors and payments in exchange for granting permits without inspections.

All five were later convicted, including former Commissioner David Wasserman. He was sentenced to one year in jail in 2008 after pleading guilty to grand larceny and falsifying business records.

The department has also been criticized for its delays in approvals that drag out processes for businesses and residents over years.

“The Building Department was the center of numerous controversies for years, and it’s no secret that residents were fed up,” DeSena said.

Since taking office in 2022, DeSena has said one of her focuses was fixing the Building Department as it took center stage in the town’s governance in recent years. This included near-immediate action by the supervisor, with proposals to address the department within the first three months of her taking office.

But the Building Department’s issues became embroiled in the town’s partisan politics, with criticisms from the board’s Democrats about DeSena withholding the department’s reviews from the board and blocking the supervisor’s department reforms.

DeSena said it was the prior town board’s dysfunction that exacerbated the issue.

“When I was elected and started examining the department, it quickly became clear that the old town board exercised outsized influence and wanted things swept under the rug,” DeSena said. “That’s why it was imperative that I ask Nassau County Comptroller Phillips’ office to perform the audit. To get to the heart of the problem, people needed to speak freely. That’s why we brought in an objective third party.”

Despite the partisanship, the town was able to take action in 2022 prior to the audit to address the department’s shortcomings. This included changing the department’s expedited permit review process that removes the Town Board’s ability to override the department’s decisions – speeding up decisions within five days.

Also implemented that year were monthly reports from the town’s Building Department. Prior reports were only given annually.

In July 2022, DeSena announced that she had sent a letter to Philips requesting an audit following a review of town operations since she took office earlier in the year.

The audit was supported across party lines, with Democratic Councilmember Mariann Dalimonte and former Republican Councilmember Veronica Lurvey standing alongside DeSena in the July announcement.

it was ultimately granted by the county’s comptroller’s office in August 2022.

The audit was conducted over a period from Jan. 1, 2020 through the present.

During the audit process, the county comptroller’s office spoke with residents, members of the town’s administration, commissioners and staff, architects, engineers and contractors. They also conducted two customer satisfaction surveys.

In its results released on Feb. 27, the comptroller’s office revealed a slew of inefficiencies that were holding back the department.

“We found significant operational deficiencies and have provided detailed recommendations that can help the Building Department improve efficiency and increase transparency,” Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips said. “In addition, the audit revealed that an attitude shift toward prioritizing constituent service would benefit the town, its residents and business professionals.”

Findings in the audit include “significant problems” with the department’s online permit portal that underutilized software features, a lack of standardized procedures and operational oversight leading to operational inefficiencies, a lack of communication and transparency with permit applicants, and a lack of standardization for permit expedition procedures.

The audit also states that the town’s “bifurcation” during the 18-month audit had a negative impact on the implementation of the Building Department portal.

The county said that the software available for the Building Department can modernize permitting processes for department employees and permit applicants.

It said the department is not utilizing this software “to improve process flow, facilitate communication and enable constituents to easily track their permit applications online.”

If utilized more, the county said this software would “improve constituent and employee satisfaction, increase efficiency and transparency, and help the Building Department to standardize processes and implement quality control.”

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