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L&I neglects inspections while task force torments construction sites

Many dangerous and unsafe buildings that should be inspected every 10 to 30 days have not been seen by inspectors from the Department of Licenses and Inspections in years, The Inquirer has learned.

5656 Ardleigh St. (center) was deemed in danger of collapse by L&I. Inspected in September 2013, it wasn't seen again until 15 months later, well beyond the required 10-day period. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / File  Photograph
5656 Ardleigh St. (center) was deemed in danger of collapse by L&I. Inspected in September 2013, it wasn't seen again until 15 months later, well beyond the required 10-day period. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / File PhotographRead more

Many dangerous and unsafe buildings that should be inspected every 10 to 30 days have not been seen by inspectors from the Department of Licenses and Inspections in years, The Inquirer has learned.

At the same time, the agency's Construction Site Task Force has been so adept at fining contractors for violations such as failing to display permits or update insurance in the city computer system, builders complain, that L&I is delaying construction while city building is booming.

Critics of the beleaguered agency say that proves it is on the wrong track, with safety taking a backseat to the exigencies of collecting cash and flexing its muscle over comparatively minor infractions.

The City Controller's Office recently released its own report on buildings that aren't inspected as often as required.

An example of the inspection problem sits empty at 5656 Ardleigh St. in East Germantown. In L&I parlance, the building is imminently dangerous, or in danger of a collapse that could hurt people.

Such buildings must be inspected every 10 days, city regulations say.

The building was first inspected by L&I on Sept. 13, 2013, records show. But it wasn't seen again until 15 months later, on Dec. 29, 2014, and then not again until last week, records show.

There are around 200 such buildings in the city, hardly any of which were inspected within the required 10-day period, an L&I inspector said.

Similarly, there are more then 5,000 unsafe buildings, described as badly damaged or deteriorated, according to the inspector, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Those are supposed to be inspected every 30 days; almost none were, he said.

"These buildings should be the task force's priority, not fining contractors," the inspector said.

In the aftermath of the fatal Center City building collapse in June 2013, critics wonder: How does the task force help?

"Six people die and you go around worrying about building permits not being in windows?" asked another L&I inspector, who, like the first inspector and nearly 20 other agency employees interviewed asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution.

A member of the Mayor's Special Independent Advisory Commission that examined the tragedy concurred.

"L&I wants to create a perfect paper trail, racking up fines for small violations, while ignoring life safety," said Jim Dollard, safety coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 98. He interviewed employees about how L&I is run for the commission report.

Dollard said that if another tragedy occurs, the paper trail would be an alibi, allowing agency administrators to say they had cited work on a particular building, thus absolving L&I of blame.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams disagreed.

"These are absurd and false comments from people who are fighting the reform effort [at L&I] that will make this city safer," Williams said in a statement. He declined to be interviewed, but answered questions in writing.

Williams added that both the task force - responsible for illegal and unsafe construction sites - as well as the Contractual Services Unit - responsible for unsafe and dangerous buildings - had effectively reduced threats to public safety.

Responding to the backlog of uninspected buildings, Williams said his recent hiring of 27 new building inspectors allowed L&I to be "closer to having more oversight on dangerous buildings than [at] any other time in the history of the department."

Lately, however, problems have developed. The Inquirer reported last week that nine new inspectors were not certified to perform inspections, raising concerns from the state that 600 inspections of unsafe buildings the newcomers did last month may not be valid.

Addressing the task force's work, Williams added that insurance and permit-placement violations aren't minor infractions, but "go to the heart of public safety."

Checking to ensure that permits are properly posted at job sites is "a critical first step to ensure the department gave the 'A-OK' to begin a project that could hurt someone if the codes are not followed."

He said "disgruntled" employees were having difficulty adjusting to his reforms.

As the task force has grown in importance since the tragedy, L&I has experienced a major schism, with district building inspectors pitted against task force members and some others, insiders say.

"Morale is horrible," said Bob Coyle, staff representative for AFSCME District Council 47, Local 2187, which represents many L&I employees.

Inspectors say the task force works like an internal police force, checking their work as they fine contractors.

And inspectors say they fear retaliation from Williams and his former No. 2 man, Scott Mulderig, who helped oversee the task force. Mulderig, who was also in charge of demolitions, was reassigned after The Inquirer reported that half a block in Fairmount was demolished last year without permits.

Williams said it was "false and insulting" to assert that he and Mulderig were retaliatory. He also said some employees "continuously attempt to undermine" his efforts.

Few events have inspired greater consternation among employees, Coyle said, than the demotion of John Lech, a respected inspector.

He was cited for what Coyle called bogus charges after he challenged Williams in a public forum in 2013.

What was unusual, said Coyle's union colleague David Mora was that neither of Lech's two supervisors followed management's order to press the charges. "That's never happened at L&I before," Mora said. "So Carlton did it himself."

Then Williams presided over an April 2014 hearing in which Lech lost 15 percent of his pay.

"Williams was prosecutor, judge, and jury," Coyle said. "I don't recall a commissioner in any department doing that. He leads in a climate of fear."

Lech declined to comment on the matter, as did Williams.

Because Williams had removed other well-respected employees, the Lech incident "sent a chill" throughout the agency, an inspector said.

Problems are evident outside L&I, as well.

Several of 10 contractors The Inquirer contacted said they were considering suing the city.

The task force has written $50 and $100 violations over permit placement and lack of proof of valid insurance without telling contractors, they said. Often, contractors say, they don't even know a task force member has been on their job sites. They say they find out only when their regular building inspectors tell them no more inspections can occur - and therefore construction must halt - because of the fines owed.

"A few $50 fines were shutting down a $40 million job," said a developer who, like the others, did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"This is a strike force wreaking havoc on everything in the city by failing us for minor things," said the developer, whose company has built 5,000 housing units in the city.

One builder/architect said that after the disaster, L&I "reshuffled the cards to make it look like they're taking precautions to avoid another. But they're just covering their butts so if something bad happens, they can say, 'See, we wrote violations.' "

An inspector said the task force was "all about failing contractors" for the fees generated by minor violations. "It's borderline extortion," he said.

Some contractors said they were fined for not displaying permits before work even started or after a job was done. A builder added, "The task force will be driving us out to build elsewhere."

In response, Williams wrote, "These are sad and false commentaries from people who are apparently resistant to the clear reforms and increased funding that we have secured to make this department a more significant force for public safety at construction sites around the city."

In the six months after the collapse, the task force issued 1,658 violations amounting to $93,078, city records show. In the previous six months, the task force had issued 194 violations totaling $52,068, records show.

The unit was under a different structure and was not addressing dangerous construction-site conditions before the collapse as it does now, a city spokesman wrote in an e-mail. That, he said, was an example of the department's commitment to increased oversight.