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.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.