by Jay A. McCalla
In a riveting mixture of “Mean Girls” and the World Wrestling Federation, Mayor Michael Nutter and Controller Alan Butkovitz have been exchanging petty barbs and school yard taunts so silly a 9-year-old child would beg to be “gagged with a spoon.”
Nutter, indulging his tendency towards “trash talk,” declared that Butkovitz “has a narcissistic personality disorder.” (It was only a few months ago that the mayor called a Democratic challenger “a little jerk with a big checkbook.”)
“I went to Overbrook High,” the Controller smartly retorted. “If somebody said that you’d be on the ground before you could find a dictionary to look up the word ‘narcissist.’”
If they were merely jousting over a boy who might take them to the prom, the nitwitted exchanges might be excusable. But, their batty banter centered on an extremely important matter of public safety: the almost 300 (a figure I find incredibly low) “imminently dangerous” structures in our city and the dysfunctional agency whose job it is to demolish them and monitor the remaining 20,000 to 30,000 vacant properties in Philadelphia.
Controller Butkovitz, a name NOT on everybody’s lips, has conducted several audits of the Department of Licenses and Inspections since 2013 and has found unqualified inspectors, inadequate staffing, faulty computers that lend themselves to corruption, a lazy approach to demolitions related to public safety, and a policy of staying out of the way of private demolition contractors.
His most recent audit was impeded by the refusal to cooperate by the current commissioner Carlton Williams. The controller had to subpoena the records he sought. No doubt, that conspicuous lack of cooperation contributed to the controller’s calling for Williams’ resignation. Rather than take the audit results and public safety seriously, Nutter attacked the mental and emotional balance of the controller. (At this point, the mayor has clearly surrendered the “policy wonk” credentials under which he campaigned.)
As the deputy managing director who oversaw the large-scale demolition component of Mayor Street’ Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, I can tell you L&I has always been understaffed. During the Street Administration, it had fewer than 230 employees and demolished 1,000 dangerous structures annually.
But Street borrowed $300 million for the whole of NTI, and it had to be repaid. It was decided that L&I’s annual demolition budget of $10 million would be “reprogrammed” to repay the enormous debt plus interest. There was almost no discussion of how that agency would pay for demolitions going forward.
A dirty little secrets is that, while L&I was demolishing 1,000 properties a year, an additional 1,000 were becoming abandoned. Hence the stunning backlog of abandoned properties (again, 20,000 to 30,000) were never addressed. The needle never moved.
Almost insuring the situation would become more dire, Nutter slashed the budget by 30 percent from $30 million to $20 million. The controller says “imminently dangerous” properties often sit for two years without the public danger being abated. This is egregious because the department has a procedure known as “curbside demolition” where pre-approved demo contractors can be called to the site of a dangerous property and submit bids on the spot. The lowest bidder is awarded a contract and ordered to proceed immediately. Apart from having been robbed of cash, there’s no reason dangerous buildings should still stand.
Another dirty little secret is that these dangerous and abandoned structures are predominantly in poor neighborhoods where many were cheaply built, to begin with. Every time we have a sustained, heavy rain or substantial snowfall, roofs will collapse. In a city with a substantial homeless population and a 27 percent poverty rate, we cannot be confident these properties are vacant when they weaken and fall.
As for the reorientation of L&I to not actively inspect demolition sites, as the controller alleges, there is evidence to support that. Nutter, early on, violated the City Charter by removing L&I from the oversight of the Managing Director and placing it under the Director of Commerce, the person most concerned with keeping builders and developers happy. This may explain why, once work began, there were absolutely no inspections of the infamous demolition site located at 22nd and Market streets where innocent people were crushed under the falling bricks that resulted from negligent, reckless execution.
That horror was reported globally and prompted lengthy “investigations” by City Council and a commission appointed by Nutter. Still not one scintilla of improvement. Not one more dime allocated.
As tempting as it is to solely blame our flip, facile mayor, each careless L&I budget he proposed passed muster with the Finance Director, City Council and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Agency (PICA), all of whose approval was needed.
So, we wait for the next disaster and pray we, or those we love, aren’t the victims. It seems, that’s the most and best we can do.