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Better response to gripes urged, despite city inspectors' workloads

When people complain to City Hall about overgrown grass, peeling paint or other non-emergency code violations in their neighborhoods, it sometimes takes overstretched inspectors 30 days to address problems.

Officials say that's the byproduct of a downsized department that currently has 17 inspectors juggling 10,000 complaints a year along with their other duties.

But Buffalo's accountability panel made it clear Friday that something must be done to improve response time, even if it means drafting city crews from other arenas.

Such neighborhood nuisances might not be life-threatening emergencies, but Buffalo's strategic planning director said they hurt quality of life.

"Waiting 30 days to resolve them, quite frankly, is unacceptable," Timothy E. Wanamaker told inspections officials.

Mayor Byron W. Brown cited an example of someone who is planning a backyard picnic and calls City Hall because of a neighbor's overgrown lawn. Brown and other CitiStat members said there must be a way to respond faster to even routine complaint calls.

Richard M. Tobe, who heads the Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services, said inspectors deal with complaints as fast as they can.

"But you can't do them all. You have to prioritize," he said.

Tobe is confident a new computer tracking system will help employees to "better organize" their days.

But CitiStat panelists said the solution to improving response times also may mean delegating duties typically performed by inspectors to other departments, including the Police and Public Works departments.

CitiStat also wants answers as to why it has apparently taken inspectors an average of 12 days to request buildings be boarded up after they have inspected unsecured properties. The panel reviewed one board-up request document in which an inspector said work at a fire-damaged property should be done "as soon as possible." But the report apparently didn't get into the system for 16 days.

Meanwhile, Tobe told The Buffalo News he has taken new steps to protect departmental files.

An inspector told a supervisor last week that he removed a file from City Hall involving the Webb Building renovation project so a union attorney could review it. Tobe said the lawyer was preparing for some inspectors' appearance before a city investigatory panel that's trying to find out if city permit and inspections policies were followed on the Webb Building project, where a worker fell to his death in March.

The file has since been returned, Tobe said. But he has sent out an e-mail indicating that no department files are ever to leave City Hall without permission.

"I think it's simply old habit, and we've put a stop to it," Tobe said.

Meanwhile, six files unrelated to the Webb Building or any other project involving developer Rocco R. Termini are still missing. The Police Department is investigating.

The FBI also is continuing its probe into city permits and inspections practices. Last month, it subpoenaed all city records linked to Termini's projects. More recently, federal investigators have been asking questions unrelated to Termini's projects, a sign that the probe might be expanding in scope.

Termini contributed $9,000 to Brown's $1.1 million mayoral campaign two years ago. Questions have surfaced as to whether Termini may have received favoritism from the city on the Webb Building project.

City officials vehemently denied showing any favoritism toward Termini, noting that they even have hauled him into court on inspection matters involving other buildings.


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