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'This Village Is Ass Backwards': Trustee Shocked by Building Department Records

Trustee Sam Terenzi says it's "criminal" to use village resources on cleaning up decades of disorganized paper records, recommends outsourcing.

Since a police raid on the building department more than a year ago, a handful of village staffers have been assigned the unenviable task of cataloging decades worth of unorganized paper records.

The files date back to the 1930s and include more than two decades of incomplete, questionable records spanning the now-infamous tenures of former building inspectors Leonard Cusumano and Frank Ruccolo. Cusumano passed away in 2007 after 19 years as building inspector, while his protege Ruccolo headed the long-corrupt department until he was suspended last year in the wake of a criminal investigation.

Last week, Trustee Sam Terenzi visited the dusty vault and saw the mountain of paperwork for himself. To say he was angered would be an understatement.

"Based on what I saw we should all resign our offices immediately," Terenzi wrote in an e-mail to village leaders, including fellow trustees, the village manager and the village attorney.

Pulling village staffers and outsourcing the task to a private firm should be "priority number one," Terenzi wrote, urging his colleagues to put a three-month time limit on the project. The Republican trustee also wants the files scanned digitally and made available in an online database so the public can view them.

In a village where building and code enforcement have become central issues, "the amount of time and energy wasted" by having village staff organize the records "is criminal," according to Terenzi.

"If what I saw in those files is indicative of the entire batch then this village is ass backwards," Terenzi wrote.

Affectionately referring to his fellow trustees as "you idiots," Terenzi warned his colleagues not to question his visit to the dusty vault.

In an e-mail reply, Trustee Daniel Brakewood said he agrees with Terenzi.

"This is a key priority for the Village," Brakewood, a Democrat, wrote in reply. "You should be aware that getting all of the paper files into MuniCiti [ for managing municipal building records] was part of the plan when we agreed to buy the software. In fact, we talked about how the public records should available on the web, and how code officers should be able to pull up records using a pda while in the field."

In March, the building department offices were closed off and locked down again, with police tape stretched across the office door in village hall. At the time, Mayor Dennis Pilla said investigators were working their way through a cache of 3,000 old building department reports, including some by former building inspectors.

The criminal investigation, which is separate from the village government's own probe, has been ongoing since April 29. The Westchester County District Attorney's Office has taken the lead on the investigation, but officials there haven't commented on progress or offered any hints on whether criminal charges and accountability are pending.

That's raised the anger of people who live in Port Chester and have suffered through more than two decades of corruption before the current administration under Mayor Dennis Pilla brought in outsiders -- including Code Enforcement Director Christopher Steers -- to clean up the mess and oversee proper enforcement in the village.

Since then, local leaders have made several moves, including and placing the building department under the authority of Steers, who previously worked as a municipal leader in Florida and does not have connections to people in Port Chester as former department heads did.

As the criminal investigation stretches on without word from the district attorney's office, the extent of the corruption has been revealed in small pieces. For example, after a fire earlier this month, it was revealed Ruccolo, the former building inspector, vouched for a negligent landlord when he said an Oak Street home was safe and up to code.

That led to the home passing a safety inspection in April of 2010. But after the fire on June 6, investigators found a long list of violations, including overcrowding, exposed electrical wiring and unvented fuel sources.

In last week's e-mail exchange, Terenzi recommended allocating $100,000 for outsourcing the formidable task of organizing building department files. The issue hasn't been slated for a formal discussion on the agenda, but will likely come up during next week's meeting.

Check back with Port Chester Patch for updates.

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John B June 27, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Unlike fighting the DOJ decision,I feel that this would be money well spent and will help the village.
Interested Reader June 27, 2011 at 07:38 PM
just curious, why would we spend time, or money, organizing and scanning incomplete and questionable records? They need to get accurate information into the software programs, not the garbage created by the past mess of an organization. It may require that all 5000 parcels be inspected, then compare to zoning regulations, everything else goes.
Saverio Terenzi June 27, 2011 at 08:41 PM
Interested Reader, Wouldn't you like to know exactly what's in everyone's building department files, good,bad or indifferent. You may see some interseting patterns of abuse and neglect, maybe with a little sunshine and the fact that everyone in PC can obtain this information on their PC's could be a real deterent to any more abuses. I would also propose that any Corporation,Family Trust etc, etc, or any other AKA's disclose the responsible corporate officer. You would be surprised by some of the upstanding citizens that hide behind Corporate names.
Interested Reader June 27, 2011 at 09:42 PM
It would be interesting, agreed, but since the Village is working on such a tight budget I am concerned that we would be spending good money after bad on a project that my not have the most impact on the problem. You've seen it, so you would know better, and of coarse doing something is better than doing nothing. I'm hoping that if we have to spend it has a major impact. It does sound like we need to see the whole plan and a time table on everything that will be done to fix this Department. The tax payer needs confidence and I hope we can get some soon.
George Datino June 27, 2011 at 10:07 PM
If the information is going to be used to go after all the violations and if by doing so we save one life by preventing a fire, then it is worth it. Of course, if the information is so revealing, the village should be able to recoup the $100,000 and more by fining all the violators it catches with the information.
Interested Reader June 27, 2011 at 10:11 PM
The Village has cut spending on Police and Fire and has beefed up code under the premise that it would pay for itself, so far I don't think the fines money has materialized. But again, I agree, if it saves a life then spend it.
George Datino June 27, 2011 at 10:21 PM
Well I guess what would be nice is if the fine structure for all the code and overcrowding violations was published online somewhere. If anyone else knows, please share. I just wonder if it was reasonable that a return on investment was a reasonable assumption. If it is or not, I would contend that the fines as currently constitued do not have any deterent value since the problem is so rampant.
Bart Didden June 28, 2011 at 12:45 AM
I invite the Patch readers to view the last BOT meeting. The Conservative members of the Board (Terenzi and myself) are both calling for reforms and actions, as evidenced by this article and the last meeting where I called for legislation to require an inspection for a clear C.O., prior to any transfer of real property in the Village. It is now time for the other members of the BOT to walk the walk and direct the Village Attorney to create the new legislation and the Village Manager to begin directing our staff to be timely as well as through in creating documentation that will last the ages. In the end the winners will be the property owners because values will rise and buyers will know that there is value in the C.O., issued by the Village of Port Chester, NY.
George Datino June 28, 2011 at 11:22 AM
That is a great idea. Even with the benefits of making sure properties are up to date, it offers genuine protection to would be home buyers. I know of actual people who have purchased properties only to find that previous owners failed to get C.O.'s for thing done and they are stuck with it. I even can think of an example of an inexperienced homebuyer buying a house with what appeared to be a seperate rental unit only to find out after the bought it that the rental unit was illegal and they had to get rid of the tenants. The lost income made it so they had trouble keeping the house. I am assuming the cost of these inspections would be the responsibility of the seller and the negative part of that would be the extra expenses to sales. I would imagine the few hundred dollar fee wouldn't be the deal breaker in the sale of a home when we're usually talking in the hundreds of thousands for the sale.
Concerned View June 28, 2011 at 12:34 PM
Is it possible to synchronize the Town Appraiser's records and the Village's (after it gets migrated to Muni-City)? There have been instances where the Town's records reflect changes that were never approved by the Village. Think this is a good idea - legislation to require an inspection for a clear C.O., prior to any transfer of real property in the Village. Will anyone give me odds the Board will vote on such a resolution before Labor Day?
Ephinz June 28, 2011 at 12:56 PM
Great point. I suspect this is more common than anyone would realize. We only see the numerous satellite dishs and overcrowded schools as signals of code violations. The information about the state of the records system only strengthens my hypothesis.
Cadeyrn June 28, 2011 at 01:48 PM
First of all, this mess is just a surface issue of the corrupt and dreadful leadership of the past few decades. It is indefensible. It's what knee-capped this village ... and it what the BOT is now cleaning up. That said, let have some blunt-speak for a change. Building and code enforcement is essential if Port Chester is ever going to realize its potential. The over-crowding in housing and schools is simply the result of shabby, corrupt and inept leadership of the past. At it's simplest, Ephinz has it right. No political-speak for him ... or for the vast majority of the good citizens of PC who have suffered this decline. "I suspect this is more common than anyone would realize. We only see the numerous satellite dishes and overcrowded schools as signals of code violations." Simple. Raw. And real. And the whole village is waiting for this board to clean this place up ... and to do what's right ... and political correctness be damned, too. Fix the village. That's why you're there.
Bart Didden June 28, 2011 at 02:01 PM
The Town's Appraiser's records rely more on self reporting & rebuttals than on Port Chester building permits. This is a flawed approach. The only way to find the truth is to do visual inspections, send out inspectors with un-announced management visits while the inspection is occurring or spot follow-ups to check for thoroughness. I will give you the odds on legislation before Labor Day, get the Mayor to support the idea & bring heat to the Managers & Attorney & it will happen. I get repeatedly chastised by the Democrats for trying to get involved to help & Brakewood wants an "investigation" "to look under the sheets". I have something to offer, but until we have real progress & performance reviews over the Manager & the Mayor delegates responsibilities to the Trustees there is no guarantee of anything. The machine is broken, the building department records before the 80's are helpful, but we should just draw a line in the sand & reboot. Besides getting someone to answer the phones! Right now Trustee Terenzi and I are working on the same issue from two different paths on the building dept. I have spearheaded by myself realigning the parking ticket collection issue which has seen marked improvement. I have found an excess of one million dollars in finds that have collection potential. The IDA under Neil Pagano has a potential 600,000 windfall for the Village. Where is the Mayor, the leadership, the Manager, the comp plan. Who is on first?
FJT June 28, 2011 at 02:59 PM
Bart Didden wrote: "...but until we have real progress & performance reviews over the Manager & the Mayor delegates responsibilities to the Trustees there is no guarantee of anything. The machine is broken, the building department records before the 80's are helpful, but we should just draw a line in the sand & reboot. Besides getting someone to answer the phones!" I couldn't agree more. Performance reviews -- which include the individual's performance goals and the metrics against which to measure his or her success against the goals -- are essential if there's to be real accountability, not to mention improved performance. This is Management 101. I'm a little surprised this issue even needed to be raised, but obviously it did.
Concerned View June 28, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Thanks. I appreciate all your efforts to tackle the issues that have gone unaddressed. When I watched the last BOT meeting, it seemed as though Steers and Cerretto supported such a direction. Why not get the resolution drafted ( legislation to require an inspection for a clear C.O., prior to any transfer of real property in the Village) with their input, placed on the July mid-month agenda and request the vote? I suspect it will pass.
Aidan June 28, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Seconded. The time is now.
Saverio Terenzi June 28, 2011 at 04:04 PM
The BOT will have a discussion item on it's agenda on July 5th. There is a company called General Code who had previously given the prior BOT a proposal to bring all the building department records up to the 21st century. I believe this proposal should be dusted off and the BOT should approve the contract by mid July. My understanding is that everything currently in the building dept. folders for each parcel will be scanned and with this Municiti software everyone with a computer can review any parcel. Why this wasn't done a few years ago at this point I really don't care, let's get it done now.
Nik Bonopartis June 28, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Speaking of accountability, it's been well over a year since criminal investigations were launched into the building department and the parking meter scandal. We have not heard a peep from the Westchester County District Attorney's office, and lots of people who ask me about this in person or via e-mail seem to think that there will not be accountability, or that authorities are simply waiting for people to forget about these investigations until the next big thing grabs their attention. While I don't believe the WCDA would drop these cases, I do think it's unfair to the people of Port Chester to withhold even the tiniest scraps of information under the broad definition of "under investigation." The people who live here deserve more than that, and they deserve to know what's being done to bring accountability to this village, even if that means redacting some of the more detailed aspects. Have you heard anything about the criminal investigations, and do you think the WCDA should communicate to the taxpaying Port Chester public? After all, they were the ones who were swindled and who are still paying for this.
Interested Reader June 28, 2011 at 10:01 PM
We have seen press releases from the DA's Office on indictments for both Yonkers and Mount Vernon DPW employees, as usual Port Chester is swept under the rug. The public should be reaching out to the DA with a letter writing campaign demanding action. It is quite possible that the locals have been dragging their feet, just maybe more influence, political or otherwise, on the Department responsible. This should be looked into, put that on for discussion also.
Bob June 30, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Port Chester is just one big mess with too many issues some of which have yet to be discovered. These were created and festered by the good ole' boys network which were elected and re-elected by their friends, relatives or just name recognition. Some are still there and almost none will ever be held accountable. I guess crime does pay. Good luck!.
Interested Reader July 02, 2011 at 01:19 PM
As more and more information is released it sounds worse and worse. The comments are clear, the tax payers want accountability, and this they should get. The Village has the first functional management team in place in twenty years. It is hard to believe that a significant number of former appointed or elected officials didn't know about at least some of these issues. The Public is going to have to organize and make sure we stay on track and demand action by law enforcement. What about past Investigations we have heard mentioned, did they go dormant on purpose? It would be hard to believe that local Law Enforcement hasn't been influenced now as it likely was in the past. Again, it doesn't matter what position or department they are in but lets get our best and brightest employees to the for front and give them the tasks that are most critical.
Pete Mutino July 04, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Why was my note not posted today?

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