One Less Government Silo: Community Development + Code Enforcement

Blog Post by Seth Piccirillo, Director of Niagara Falls Community Development

The City of Niagara Falls 2018 budget proposal calls for my supervision of the Niagara Falls Code Enforcement Department without additional compensation. I am excited for this opportunity. The proposed cost savings is important for this particular budget, or any annual budget for any municipality. However, the cost savings is not the most impactful part of the proposal.  It actually speaks to where we should be going as a more effective municipality.

Our goals in this proposal are to maintain current capacity, break down information silos that exist between departmental data sets and execute a more comprehensive neighborhood development strategy for our residents and small business owners.

A complaint called into inspections about a blighted house or a residential building permit being pulled, when you really think about it, is not a singular action. It is a test of how a municipality communicates and follows through. How that complaint is addressed, and eventually adjudicated, has both a direct neighborhood impact and a larger community impact.

New residential and commercial construction, or renovation, changes the level and type of municipal services needed, at and surrounding that location. That can mean anything from planning, traffic patterns, water service, Department of Public Works services and eventually community policing. That building permit is a test on how well a municipality communicates within itself. The Department of Code Enforcement has a street level impact on all of these municipal services, playing an essential role in what our city does on a day to day basis and what we can accomplishment in a year.

As Community Development Director, my goal is to simply incorporate the important work of the Code Enforcement team into our broader and ongoing neighborhood investment strategy, while maintaining current capacity and treating all staff members with respect. We work well with all city departments, and we appreciate for the opportunity to do so. We accomplish, together. Community Development operates under a deliberate team model built around the idea of directly investing, and assisting with home owner investment, in our neighborhoods, especially for the housing stock. This thought process will extend to our new relationship with Code Enforcement.

Every day, we interact with Code Enforcement and housing quality standards as part of our efforts. We have a licensed New York State Code Enforcement Officer on our staff, primarily responsible for our deferred loan housing renovations. Our two Housing Quality Standards inspectors execute approximately 700 inspections per year. Our commercial façade program includes interaction with our Code Enforcement Department for every individual project. Our Zombie Fight Project includes a side by side inspection of each vacant foreclosure with a licensed inspector. Larger projects like Niagara City Lofts, start and end with developer interaction with code enforcement. The Cities Rise Project, which we secured outside funding for, is creating a shared data base of information, including code enforcement that can be mapped, analyzed and shared with the public. 

Our ongoing efforts to better target obvious slum lord practices, can only be successful with code enforcement buy-in. All of that is to say, that a clear relationship exists between a department that invests in better housing stock and the department that is legally tasked to making sure it is done right. Let’s strengthen that relationship while saving the tax payers money.

Our department is also executing ideas that will best serve Code Enforcement on a daily basis. The Zombie Fight Project has converted inspection forms to a check list model on an electronic tablet, allowing for photos to be taken of actual infractions, significantly reducing staff hours and improving the clarity of reports. Those date stamped photos make a big difference in court. And to be clear, our goal is to be in court more often. The zombie project has also found a simple way to legally serve building owners, located out of state, with court appearance notices. For years, we were told that that inability to legally serve was the reason we could not properly prosecute. It took us months, not years to prove that wrong.

Our housing quality standards inspectors use housing pro software to track and execute all of their inspections, from inspection day to subsequent correspondence, from the same web portal. We use a modern website to communicate programmatic details to the public. As a comprehensive department, we use a project management software to track all of our projects and expenditures. These are all tools that can be used by Code Enforcement, not only to better measure outcomes, but perhaps more importantly, to make our employees’ jobs easier and more straightforward. We can work with Public Works, Police and Fire to create legal inspection forms that directly address neighborhood quality of life issues. We can arm our police and fire officers with comprehensive address data so they know more about what they are walking into. We can take a harder line on repeat offenders because, as I think has been demonstrated, being aggressive against blight and slumlords is what we are about.

I am not an inspector by trade. I am not an expert on New York State municipal code. However, I do know there is expertise within the current code enforcement team and some great ideas on how to move both departments forward. Their ideas on technology alone are exciting to me and I think they would be for the council as well. As brought up in the last meeting, I would not be the inspections department representative to an over-night fire. That is not a deficiency. I shouldn’t be. There are people on that staff that are better-equipped to expertly respond to those situations, and as a long time manager of collective bargaining unit employees, I believe supervisors should not take technical work away from team members. Naming a non-inspector to the supervisory position also ensures that the city will not lose current capacity. I think it is important to move away from a dual role of inspector and department head. It’s a blurred line that deserves some clarity.

Just as I am not an inspector, I am not accountant or a leased housing technician. But our team includes them as well. Our community development model works because those team members are empowered to take ownership of their responsibilities, improve processes whenever possible and manage up and down the chain of command. That daily leadership gets recognition and in the process, improves the quality of services that our citizens receive from us. At the end of the day, the level of service provided to our citizens and how we treat our employees are what is most important.