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Council continues to wrestle with vacant and at-risk properties law

A proposed local law which would streamline the city’s ability to stabilize vacant or at-risk buildings was the subject of discussion at a committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday. The law, which was originally proposed by Mayor Ann Thane in August, has been the subject of contention between the codes department and fire department over whether the role of the fire chief under the proposed law would infringe on the codes department’s current range of responsibilities.

The law would require the fire chief and the head of the codes enforcement department to review properties with delinquent taxes and order subsequent inspections of the properties. The fire chief would then make a determination if the property was vacant or at-risk, which would allow the city to take steps to stabilize or winterize the property, such as boarding up windows or doors, shutting off water, or repairing the roof, or removing hazardous materials.

Currently, the city is allowed to take steps to stabilize buildings not owned by the city under chapter 92 of the city code. However the chapter also allows the city to demolish the building if needed, and therefore requires time consuming steps such as notifying the property owners by registered mail and holding a hearing at the fire chief’s office. The new proposed law only allows stabilization measures, not demolition. Proponents of the law, including Fire Chief Michael Whitty and Corporation Counsel Gerad DeCusatis, say the new law is needed in order to give the city the ability to quickly stabilize vacant buildings so that they don’t deteriorate further, and to preserve the value of the properties.

Both Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler and Alderman Ron Barone proposed leaving the issue for next year’s common council to take up.

“It’s my understanding a grievance has been filed against the fire department over this issue and that’s why I’m asking that it be tabled until next year because you are trying to change work rules within one department to another department,” said Hatzenbuhler. “This is strictly code enforcement jobs as I understand it, and you’re trying to turn it over to the fire department. So my suggestion is we table it and don’t address it, leave it for the new administration because this goes to the language issue that we have tried to get changed several times, and has never been written appropriately so we can address it and pass it.”

“I think just leave it for the next council, let them sit down with everybody and go through this. It’s arbitrary. I’m not going to make any decision tonight,” said Barone.

DeCusatis, who acknowledged that a grievance from the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) in regards to the issue had been received by the city, said “It’s irrelevant, as a grievance, because a grievance deals with disputes under a collective bargaining agreement. This is not addressed in the collective bargaining agreement. What they should have filed, if they in fact should file anything, would be an improper labor practice, because they’re saying that their exclusive work is being assigned to another unit, or outside of their work unit. But I don’t see how that could work…since we have never done it before, I don’t see how it could be exclusive to anyone.”

DeCusatis also said, “The fear of there being improper labor practice from this is basically unfounded. No one’s doing this work right now, so I don’t know how it can be in any way taking someone else’s work. Because we’re not currently identifying ‘vacant and at-risk property’ so I can’t see how any bargaining unit has exclusivity on this process.

Jeff Senecal, housing inspector for the city, referenced the text of the proposed law at the meeting and said, “On page 2, it talks about the fire chief ordering field inspections, which he can’t do…it also mentions the fire chief will assign periodic inspections to identify vacant and at-risk buildings. The only code the fire chief is allowed to enforce is the fire codes…the fire chief can’t order inspections by other people and the fire department can’t do vacant structure inspections. They can do inspections related to the fire code and that’s it.”

Mayor Elect Michael Villa asked DeCusatis during the meeting, “What’s the best remedy that satisfies both the code enforcement and gives the fire chief the authority to do his job?”

“I think you should pass this local law as written and act accordingly,” replied DeCusatis. “If there’s an improper labor practice, we’ll deal with it…I don’t think it will succeed if there is one.”

“If you already know there is going to be flak from this particular group here, then why would you even want to risk passing it?” asked Senecal.

“Because you can’t determine what you are going to do just because there is opposition. Especially opposition that’s not necessarily founded in anything worthwhile,” replied DeCusatis.

“Well, that’s not the way we see it,” said Senecal.

“I understand,” said DeCusatis. “That’s why there’s forums to address grievances. But I don’t think we can act in fear of every possible improper labor practice that could be brought against the city because someone says ‘that’s my work, I think we’ve been doing it exclusively’, when aspects of this work has not been done. And it’s not even clear that there would be an inspection order that would violate your claim of exclusivity.”

“I’ve looked into probably a dozen other cities. They all have a separate piece of language that identifies vacant buildings by their own local law and allows them to secure them by their own means,” said Whitty. “It works, it works everywhere, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work here.”

“This is ridiculous what we are arguing about here,” said Villa. “We need a streamlined process. We need to get it done. And if it doesn’t get done now, I guarantee it will get done January 1, whether this group of people are here, or that group of people are here, something has to be done.”

Alderman Ed Russo said, “I think it’s something that needs to be moved on…it needs to be acted on as soon as possible.”

Russo, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Thane, urged both Senecal and Whitty to work with DeCusatis to come up with a compromise before the next common council meeting on November 17.

Download a draft version of the proposed law in .pdf format.

About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

12 Responses to Council continues to wrestle with vacant and at-risk properties law

  1. Luis says:

    If this were only about as the Fire Chief states “I’ve looked into probably a dozen other cities. They all have a separate piece of language that identifies vacant buildings by their own local law and allows them to secure them by their own means,” said Whitty. “It works, it works everywhere, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work here.”

    Well Then Chief, there is no need for new legislation as Chapter 92 already addresses your stated concerns under “Emergency Work”. Read the law and you’ll see it already exist.

    Here’s Chapter 92, see 92-4 as it already states who should conduct these inspections”code enforcement” not Sure Dept. then see 92-9 were it already gives the Fire Chief the power to act as the Fire Chief states above.

    This law is a waste of time as the City is bound by State Law to property notify a property owner before taken action. You can’t surconvent State Law with local law.

    • Luis says:

      Here’s the current city of Amsterdam law, read section 4 & 9. http://ecode360.com/8068087

    • Tim Becker says:

      I think the issue, as stated by the corp counsel and fire chief, is that chapter 92 is too cumbersome for anything other than tearing down the whole house. As it is now, you have to follow the same procedure for boarding up a window as you do for tearing a house down. If there’s a window that needs to be boarded up, you have to send out a notice via registered mail and then the fire chief has to hold a hearing. Now, if the city is going to demolish a home, I definitely want to follow that process. But it seems alot more than is necessary just to nail a board over a window to keep out people, critters, rain, etc. Seems to me alot more could be done quicker with a streamlined process.

      • Luis says:

        Tim, as someone as myself that used Chapter 92 in the Amsterdam code as well as the Unsafe Structure Ordinance that I currently use today under another municipality. I can tell you Ch. 92 is no more cumbersome then the one I use. First I used Ch. 92 to board up one window or a whole building in Amsterdam. The City is not here to repair someone’s house with taxpayer monies. If the house is imminent it should be torn down unless it can be fixed by the property owner.

        What I have heard is the notification issue is cumbersome for the Fire Chief but he knows state Law dictates due process/service of notice on an owner for this type of code.

        Again, the Fire Chief has already the ability to act as he states, as I do too where I work and as someone who used Chapter 92, in Amsterdam its adequate.

      • Luis says:

        Tim, I just read your part where you state or if they are stating “you have to hold a hearing to board up one window”. That’s not at all true!

        As I said, I had it done (many times) one window without ever holding a hearing because chapter 92-9 allows for “Emergency Work” which allows a code enforcement inspector* not Fire Dept. Official with the approval of the Fire Chief to skip the standard notification process/service of an Unsafe Structure that a structure is a danger to the community, until after the unsafe problem has been removed by the city. There is no truth that you have to hold a hearing under this code section for boarding one window or aNY number of windows. Nothing cumbersome here.

        Read for yourself here is the section currently within the Amsterdam Unsafe Structure code 92-9:

        Emergency work.
        A.
        In case there shall be, in the opinion of the Fire Chief, actual and immediate danger of the falling of a building so as to endanger public safety, life or property so as to be an actual or immediate menace to health or public welfare as a result of the conditions present in or about a building, the Fire Chief shall cause the necessary work to be done or render such a building temporarily safe, whether the procedure prescribed in this chapter for unsafe buildings has been instituted or not.
        B.
        When emergency work is to be performed under this section, the Fire Chief shall cause the owner of the premises to be served personally or by registered mail, and, if served by registered mail, shall post on the premises a notice to comply containing a description of the premises, a statement of the facts in which the building is unsafe or dangerous and orders and directions to correct the conditions which constitute an emergency within a specified period not to exceed three days from actual or constructive notice of the condition.
        [Amended 4-7-2009 by L.L. No. 2-2009]
        C.
        In the event that the emergency does not permit any delay in correction, the notice shall state that the city has corrected the emergency situation.
        D.
        In both cases, the notice shall state that the corrective costs of the emergency will be assessed against the owner pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.

        *Also note Chapter section 92-4 states the code enforcement inspectors are to cite this code and not the Fire Dept. as the Corp. Counsel claims the city code enforcement inspectors have no exclusive right to the task in question, well the current written code says otherwise:
        Inspections.
        The City Code Enforcement Inspectors shall make inspections of all unsafe buildings within the City of Amsterdam and report to the Fire Chief any unsafe buildings which be found within the limits of the City of Amsterdam.

        It would be better if the Corp. Counsel stated that this Adminastration has already agreed to a prior grievance were the Fire Dept. was attempting to take away exclusive bargaining unit work of the code enforcement inspectors. His statement that have no claim is riddled with holes as there is already case hI story in this problem.

      • Tim Becker says:

        So are you saying one broken window qualifies as an emergency under this section?

        You are saying that one broken window qualifies as an “actual and immediate danger of the falling of a building so as to endanger public safety, life or property so as to be an actual or immediate menace to health or public welfare as a result of the conditions present in or about a building.” ???

      • Luis says:

        Tim,
        No I don’t agree with your interpretation of what I would determine. As your statement is not put in a proper perspective. Looking at the law understand this type of law is a mence law or nuisane law for local muni’s.

        I’m stating based on the reasons given in your article above by the Fire Chief and Corp. Council, they wish to address “vacant and at risk properties”. When I found or find vacant and open, abandoned, blighted properties, yes I used ch. 92 and would add State Property Maintenance or Fire Codes to have that one window secured in order to prevent unauthorized entry. What I described is one of the reasons why Ch. 92, was written along with req. as part of Executive Law 381 & 382.

      • Tim Becker says:

        If you want to argue that the notification and hearing procedures in chapter 92 are not too cumbersome to take care of broken windows and other minor problems like that, then I can at least understand that opinion given your experience.

        However, I can’t imagine a context by which a single broken window could be defined as an “immediate danger” under the parameters in the chapter.

        Perhaps you could share an example of a case you handled that involved a broken window or a problem similar to that and how you justified it as an emergency? That might help me and other readers understand your perspective.

  2. Mohawk Valley Compass says:

    Just added link to a pdf of the proposed law.

    • Luis says:

      After reading the revised law 92, I only have more questions for one, No one holds the position of “Code Enforcement Supervisor”. The way the revised law is written it states “The Head of the Division of Building and Zoning Enforcement” as per the current City Charter it states “There shall be a Division of Building and Zoning Enforcement, the head of which shall be the Code Enforcement Supervisor”. No one holds that position or title but yet city hall is writing or rewriting the code and are naming its supervisor to an unfunded and unfilled position. Thats special.

      Also how can you write a law and leave Enforcement of it up to either dept. That is not affirmative, direct or specific, it’s either or whoever wants to do it or no one as it doesn’t state any one.

      • Tim Becker says:

        I don’t disagree on this point, I think some fine-tuning and clarification of the various roles in this would help and maybe solve some of the points of contention between the two departments.

      • Luis says:

        These issues I’m sure have been spoken about quite a bit already behind the sceens and are just boiling over now. I can tell reading your article the city hall inspectors are quite frustrated with the administration because they have allowed that language to continue to this point.