State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) has joined Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen in calling on the state to conduct an investigation and operational audit into how the Hempstead Building Department assessed damage after Hurricane Sandy.
“We’re still reliving the nightmare seven years later because of inaction and flawed practices by the town’s Building Department throughout the Murray and Santino administrations,” Gillen said about the department’s actions after Sandy.
At news conference on Monday, Gillen said that allegations she has heard about the Building Department include delaying the issuing of select building permits, “looking the other way” on certain code violations and expediting permits for “favored” homeowners and businesses.
Gillen said that the agency failed to notify “thousands of homeowners in the town” that they could be living in potentially dangerous homes. Gillen said that homeowners are at risk of flood insurance payments skyrocketing and having to pay “out of pocket” to pay for elevating houses.
“The continued inaction on behalf of the Building Department, despite my multiple directives to proactively alert homeowners that still have no clue if they are living in a substantially damaged home, has left us no other choice but to hand this department over to the state,” Gillen said.
As a result of “mounting concerns,” Gillen along with Brooks called for the New York Department of State to investigate the Building Department.
Brooks’ office sent the Department of State an Aug. 5 report on code enforcement in New York by the Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations. According to the report, “The Town of Hempstead was among the communities most significantly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.”
The report states that the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires municipalities to issue what are known as preliminary damage assessments, or PDAs, to measure monetary damage in a community and see what structures may need immediate action. The report says that the Building Department performed damage assessments, but they were “allegedly filed away” rather than being shared with property owners.
The investigative team said in the report that Town of Hempstead representatives and the supervisor’s office reached out with concerns about the Building Department.
Gillen said that in July she put forward a contract for an operational audit into the department. Gillen said that the auditing firm had been selected by a bipartisan committee of town officials.
Gillen said that the goal of the audit was to help the Building Department “correct its deficiencies and restore faith among many homeowners and small businesses.” Gillen said she has been attempting to audit the department since she was sworn into office in 2018.
“Unfortunately, the proposed audit was defeated by the town Republican majority. I have been trying to get this audit done for a year and a half now,” Gillen said.
The issue widens the rift between Gillen, a Democrat, and the Republican-led Town Board. Gillen said she does not have the support of the Building Department and the Town Board in her office’s reaching out to residents in flood zones about how their homes were assessed after Hurricane Sandy.
Some council members have issued responses on the issue.
“Neither party should be engaging in pre-election stunts that do not benefit the taxpayer,” Councilman Bruce Blakeman said in a statement.
Blakeman said that the board has already initiated changes in the Building Department.
“We recognize that the building department has room for improvement and we are addressing those issues,” Blakeman said.
“I welcome any review that will yield a positive outcome for our residents and consumers. We need to improve efficiency and service delivery, and that’s why Council members are working to implement our outside review panel and 5-point reform plan that we recently announced,” Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said.
Brooks’ spokesman Joe Agovino said the Department of State told Brooks’ office that it had received the Senate report and was reviewing it to see if an operational audit was necessary.
Susan Trenkle-Polasky, the spokeswoman for Hempstead council members, said that the Building Department has not issued any comments or responded to Gillen’s and Brooks’ call for a state audit.