In 2015, a series of audits and investigative reports have highlighted ongoing challenges and flaws in Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). These efforts largely followed up on previous expert reviews by Mayor Nutter's Special Independent Advisory Commission and City Council.

Outside of the spotlight's glare, the city has been actively working to rebuild and reform its building safety programs:

  • Annual funding for L&I has increased from $21.5 million to $31.5 million over the past three years — with authorized positions up from 300 to 384.
  • A comprehensive technology upgrade has been launched, and the first phase is operational.
  • The Philadelphia Fire Department and L&I have begun joint inspections, the Fire Code Unit has expanded, and enhanced fire inspection training has begun.
  • New demolition safety standards and permitting practices are now law, with demolition licenses beginning to be issued in the fall.
  • The First Judicial District has entered an order appointing a court officer to issue civil warrants for inspectors to enter potentially dangerous properties.

These and other initial steps provide an important foundation for full reform, and have begun to make Philadelphia communities safer. At the same time, the work required is far from done. As members of the Building Safety Oversight Board charged by the mayor with reviewing implementation of reform, we see the following as key priorities for 2016:

  • Continue to build a strong leadership team for L&I that can unify a fragmented department, reestablishing credibility and positive morale.
  • Reaffirm L&I's focus on building safety — including pursuit of reconstitution as a Department of Buildings or equivalent steps to put safety first.
  • Finalize a new civil service redesign to professionalize the inspector career track, and follow through on scheduled recruitment to fill more than 40 current L&I vacancies, many resulting from recent budget increases.
  • Build on newly expanded training programs in L&I to further increase the level of certification and expertise held by city inspectors, particularly among the growing number of recent hires still gaining experience.
  • Clarify, strengthen, and extend new contractor demolition training standards and experience requirements to further advance the goals of City Council's 2014 legislation.
  • Expand the city Law Department's capacity to enforce dangerous code violations in court, with increased staffing, better technology, clearer procedures, enhanced interagency coordination with L&I, increased courtroom availability for L&I cases, and greater transparency for the public.
  • Complete planned training of more than 400 fire captains and lieutenants to achieve fire inspector Class 1 certification by June, substantially enhancing capacity and awareness of building safety concerns related to the fire code.
  • Fully support ongoing implementation of the new technology upgrades, which hold the potential for transforming key business processes, improving accountability, and directly and indirectly enhancing public safety.
  • Continue incremental investment in improved building safety, including further key front-line staffing additions slated for the FY2017 Budget in FY2016-FY2020 Five-Year Financial Plan.
  • Sustain Office of the Inspector General staffing sufficient to ensure active and visible integrity oversight of L&I, and follow through aggressively on findings from a recently released investigation that highlighted needed areas for process improvement.
  • Strengthen citywide coordination of efforts to address vacant and abandoned properties, identifying a clearer point of leadership to tackle this challenge comprehensively.
  • Focus on key performance metrics to align city building safety spending with improved outcomes and results.
  • Initiate a Project Management Office to coordinate and accelerate implementation of all the above building safety reforms.
  • Already, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has signaled his resolve to further rebuild and reform L&I with a focus on public safety. Thanks to the work of the past two and half years, the platform is coming into place for the next mayoral administration to forge a new L&I in the new year ahead.

It is critical to continue the substantial progress already made — Philadelphia should never have to experience another 22d and Market Street tragedy.

Michael Nadol, managing director of the PFM Group (nadolm@pfm.com), and Edward M. Dunham Jr., an attorney with Kleinbard LLC (EDunham@kleinbard.com), are chair and vice chair, respectively, of Philadelphia's Building Safety Oversight Board, which recently issued its 2015 report..