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Staff shortage hurts housing inspections

A staff crunch is hindering efforts to crack down on people who ignore housing codes, according to Buffalo's economic development chief.

Richard M. Tobe warned that the problem will only get worse now that the state is forcing city inspectors to perform new tasks.

Tobe told Buffalo's accountability panel he will likely push for more staff in the new budget that will take effect July 1.

Complaints about inspection delays kicked off Friday's meeting of the CitiStat panel, a team that is charged with making Buffalo more efficient.

The panel has launched a new policy that allows residents to call or e-mail questions to department heads. Lorraine Brubaker, a Riverside resident, was among the first to take advantage of the forum. She sent a note complaining about delays in getting inspectors to address problem properties.

"Housing violations seem to linger on way too long, until citizens get tired of asking for help," Brubaker complained. "Is that the strategy? Quality-of-life issues become quite frustrating because of this lax approach to remedy violations with fines or corrections."

City officials said it's not true it takes inspectors up to six months to address problems, claiming they typically take action within 30 days. But Tobe dealt head-on with the underlying question: Does his Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspections Services have enough staff?

"The answer plainly is we do not," Tobe told Mayor Byron W. Brown and other CitiStat panelists.

Tobe said budget cuts in past years took a heavy toll on a department that now faces an increased workload. New state regulations that took effect this month force municipalities to inspect multiple dwellings every three years instead of every five. In addition, there are new state mandates involving city inspections of private schools and dormitories.

Meanwhile, some Council members have been prodding Tobe's department to launch some new initiatives, including more vigorous oversight of some businesses. Bonnie E. Russell of the University District said she's inclined to agree with Tobe's claim that more inspectors are needed.

"But the workers he has also need to be better utilized," Russell said.

For the past few years, Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese has been championing a plan he thinks could improve the inspections process. He wants to follow the lead of other cities and train firefighters to perform inspections beyond just enforcing fire codes.

Such a change would have to be negotiated with the fire union. Brown and labor leaders have been working on a plan to try to persuade the control board to lift a wage freeze that has been in place for nearly three years. The panel has repeatedly said that it will only agree to give raises to unions that find ways to save money.

The CitiStat panel will revisit concerns over inspections in the coming weeks. People who are interested in submitting questions to the accountability panel can do so by visiting the city's Web site at and clicking on the CitiStat heading. Or they can call 851-4890.


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