By Seth Daniel
When Health and Housing Inspector Mickey DeMato learned of Mayor Carlo DeMaria’s vision for a new and improved Code Enforcement Task Force, he took to the streets.
He and the seven other inspectors didn’t crack down hardcore on residents in a gruff manner often seen in municipal inspections, but rather they took on a dedicated beat and walked the streets.
They befriended the residents in their assigned area, and they handed out their business cards. They carried iPads to document everything from illegal apartments to a pothole that needed filled.
They asked residents for input, and they began using their eyes and ears to identify problem properties that could be brought into good standing.
It’s a program that is already reaping rewards.
“A very important part of the program is we have gone out to the neighborhoods and got to know the people on our beat,” said DeMato. “We handed out our business cards and asked if people had concerns. I get people all the time who say ‘hello’ to me and I just gave them a ticket a month before. We’re not the Gestapo running around the City and I think people recognize that. We’re working with people and helping them take care of their properties. If they need help, we help them when we can. Most of the situations are feel-good stories. They usually work out for the best.
“The mayor wants us to be the best Inspectional Service Department in the Commonwealth,” he continued. “This is important to him. He says, ‘Tell me what you need.’ We’ve used that to find a lot of early successes.”
More importantly, DeMato and the inspectors brought what they learned on the streets and in the neighborhoods to a roundtable of City officials that has likely never been seen to date. In places where fiefdoms and territories used to reign, collaboration is now king, and it is showing up big time on the new Task Force – which has only been in operation for about four months.
“The Code Enforcement Task Force is making great strides in providing a higher quality of life for the residents of the City,” said Keith Slattery, assistant city solicitor, housing attorney and leader of the Task Force. “There is an emphasis on communicating with residents to understand their needs, while cultivating an understanding of how City Ordinance enforcement lends to that quality of life. Through the task force, the communication between the City departments involved has been integral to this process. With the strong support and leadership from Mayor DeMaria, the goal of promoting a clean and safe City remains a top priority.”
Mayor Carlo DeMaria said one of his greatest goals was to assemble a wide array of City departments to combat quality of life issues in one roundtable. The Task Force is doing that, meeting once a week to discuss the issues that are happening at the ground level.
“My vision for the City has always included a safer and more beautiful community,” he said. “The Task Force is a great resource in which not only do the departments coordinate toward these and other goals, but also it enhances communication with the public, which is essential as well.”
The current task force members are: Slattery, Rich O’Donnell; Steve Supino; Sean Dattoli; Chris Jewell; City Clerk Sergio Cornelio; Building Inspector James Soper; John DeMato; Frank Nuzzo; Martin Furtado; Chad Luongo; License Commission Chair Philip M. Antonelli; Council President Anthony DiPierro; Louis Staffieri; Mike Mastrocola; Peter Sikora; Officer Jeffrey Gilmore; Captain Paul Hamilton; Jennifer Gonzalez; and Kevin O’Donnell of the Mayor’s Office.
Slattery said the meetings focus in on specific properties from a perspective of ISD, but also from a police and fire perspective – not to mention a number of other perspectives.
Slattery said one of the early victories from his end has been getting bank-owned properties to register with the City and to begin maintaining their properties. In the past, the City did require banks to register their foreclosed properties, but many didn’t do it and it was hard for the City inspectors to figure out who owned a property. That resulted in a property that was in limbo, often was neglected and became a neighborhood problem.
Now, the City has assigned one person to research the titles and contact them to make sure they are registered and taking care of the property.
“In three months, we went from seven or eight registered properties to more than 50,” Slattery said. “That program has generated about $70,000 in three months from those registration fees. However, the real important part above the revenues is that all the banks now know they are supposed to do this. They know we will penalize them if they don’t. Now they take care of their properties free and clear of the Task Force having to get involved.”
DeMato said he has found clear success in the House Beautification program. As he walks his beat, he identifies properties with broken stairs, rotted wood, peeling paint, missing handrails or overgrown vegetation. After noting the problems, he writes letters to the owner, and to date has sent out about 220 of them.
What that has brought is many good stories of people who were able to make repairs or to connect people with services to help them make repairs.
“We had one property on Shute Street,” he said. “That one was in pretty bad condition and the neighbors had noticed. The paint was peeling and the concrete stairs were broken and there was rotted wood. It also had overgrown vegetation…We worked with the owner on that one and he did a really nice job. It looks great now.”
That is just one of many stories, he said, where a little nudge from the Task Force has resulted in an improvement in neighborhood quality of life.
Slattery said they have also had success in shutting down illegal apartments – saying of the dozen they have identified and removed, all of them are still down.
That goes hand in hand with working without permits, and Slattery and DeMato said they have found great success via additional inspectors and resources.
“People are now starting to see the City is serious,” Slattery said. “We used to send out cease and desist letters, but they would ignore us. Now they do cease and desist whatever they are doing because they know we’re serious…All these things are what happens when so many people and departments communicate well. Everything’s been in concert. Everyone is working in harmony.”