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Housing violation complaints soar; city can't keep up

Residents flooded City Hall with 4,153 complaints about housing code violations in the first five months of the year, and nearly one-third of the problems remain unresolved.

Mayor Byron W. Brown called the new figures "totally unacceptable" and told inspections officials he expects to see improvements.

"We're going to hold the department accountable," Brown said.

Commissioner Richard M. Tobe said the Economic Development, Permits and Inspections Services Department is grappling with an increase in housing complaints and added duties even though it remains understaffed.

The Buffalo News obtained data showing that housing violation complaints soared 44 percent in the first five months of 2007 compared with the same period a year ago. About 20 percent of the complaints logged last year are still unresolved, officials conceded.

Plans to hire new staffers should provide some relief. The new budget that took effect July 1 adds three new positions, but Tobe said even these new hires and a few new positions that were added last year leave the unit understaffed.

"We lost 45 people [since 2002] and work is increasing," Tobe said.

During Friday's CitiStat meeting, Brown ordered inspections officials to fill the vacant jobs as quickly as possible, warning that if there are delays they will face "a problem with me."

Following the somewhat tense meeting, Brown said his remarks reflect his frustration that so many complaints about blighted homes are not being addressed fast enough.

"I don't like to hear excuses. We are all short-staffed," Brown said.

Decaying and vacant structures pose the most critical problem facing Buffalo, Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa said.

For the second time in three months, the city's accountability panel criticized performance in the inspections unit. CitiStat members lamented in April that it was sometimes taking inspectors more than a month to address peeling paint, overgrown grass and other complaints.

"At some point, there needs to be a strategy," Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz said.

A game plan is already in place for improving operations, inspections officials insisted. In addition to more staff, the department is undergoing technology upgrades. Inspectors will be equipped with laptops and probably BlackBerries. Officials think the devices will speed processing and improve communication. A new computer tracking system will help employees prioritize their days.

First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey wants to see a list of outstanding housing complaints broken down by inspectors. He said it's important to make sure "everyone is doing their job."

CitiStat panelists also raised questions about possible demolition delays. They cited one initiative funded with federal money. Of the 32 demolition orders issued through the program, only one structure has been torn down in recent months, City Strategic Planning Director Timothy E. Wanamaker said.

Tobe said he needed to review the numbers to verify that they're current.

Tobe was quick to note that there were 11 emergency demolitions performed in the first 12 days of July.


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