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The Town of North Hempstead Town Hall (Photo by Alex Nuñez)

Audit Of The Town Of North Hempstead’s Building Department Is Released

The Office of Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips recently released its report on an audit of the Town of North Hempstead (TONH) Building Department.

The building department is responsible for administering the New York State and Town of North Hempstead Codes as they relate to property, buildings, and construction within the town’s unincorporated areas.

Anton Media Group reached out to Supervisor DeSena when the audit review was released to discuss the findings.

Supervisor DeSena originally called for the audit in July 2022. “There were many [issues] but for me, the most notable was oversight. As the Comptroller’s report mentioned, that was hindered here because of the situation created by the old town board. It undermined my authority to investigate and worse, allowed them to block my changes. Unfortunately, this also put our staff in an extremely uncomfortable position because as the report states, they simply didn’t know who they should be reporting to. That was what prompted me to request an independent, third-party audit. Thankfully, we have a new town board who’s ready to work on rebuilding together,” said Supervisor DeSena.

“Departmentally, one of the most notable issues we observed was the lack of accountability and responsiveness to the public,” said Supervisor DeSena. “The building department created barriers between themselves and the public. Many people routinely sought clarification on decisions but were left to guess on details which created untold delays and frustration. As with anything, performance is greatly improved through communication, so our main focus is on opening those channels up.”

Supervisor Jen DeSena talks about the audit as Councilmember Mariann Dalimonte (left) and former Councilmember Veronica Lurvey look on, July 2022.
(Photo from the Town of North Hempstead)

The Nassau County Comptroller’s office began its review in August of 2022.

They assessed the department’s various functions and found that an area of high concern to constituents was the efficiency of the permitting process. The permitting process includes the intake of permit applications, maintenance of building/permit-related documentation, issuance of permits, inspections of work performed, and issuance of permit close-out certificates.

The review covered the period from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2023. According to the Review of the TONH Building Department, “Since the inception of this review, there have been improvements at the Building Department, many of which were developed as a result of direct observations and recommendations made by my team during the review process.”

Comptroller Phillips’ office conducted an objective and detailed review of each phase of the permitting process. The team heard from residents, members of the town administration, commissioners, staff members of the department, and architects and design professionals.

According to a press release from the Office of Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips, the following are among the major findings of the review:
• The implementation of a new online portal for Building Department permit applications in 2020 was fraught with significant problems, including failure to utilize key features of the software, CitizenServe Online Solutions, which resulted in frustration and dissatisfaction among both constituents and employees of the Building Department.
• Operational inefficiencies exist within the Department, largely due to lack of standardized procedures and operational oversight.
• Insufficient communication between the Building Department and permit applicants and a lack of transparency have undermined constituent satisfaction with the Department and the Town’s portal, MyToNH.
• The bifurcation of the Town’s government during the audit period had a negative impact on the implementation of the portal.
• Procedures for requests to expedite permit applications lack standardization.

The press release from the comptroller’s office shared that in addition to the issues detailed above, “reporting functionality of the new system was not fully established, impeding the Department’s ability to track permit activity and to identify and remediate process inefficiencies.”

“We found significant operational deficiencies and have provided detailed recommendations that can help the Building Department improve efficiency and increase transparency,” said Comptroller Phillips. “In addition, the audit revealed that a cultural shift toward prioritizing constituent service would benefit the town, its residents and business professionals.”

One of the most prevalent issue with the building department was found to be the implementation of the Citizenserve Online Portal, My ToNH, which was launched in June 2019. The audit review states that “the town launched an online permitting system, but the implementation of the portal and operational components resulted in frustration and dissatisfaction among constituents and employees of the Building Department.”

The audit report details recommendations for the building department to implement to fix the issues causing inefficiency. Recommendations include:
• Leverage more capabilities of the Citizenserve Online Solutions software to enable constituents to view all data related to their property and track their permit applications within the MyToNH portal.
• Implement permit processing operational improvements.
• Improve communication with constituents.
• Standardize the process to request an expedited permit application review, with the request and approval process being completed within the MyToNH portal.
• Leverage Citizenserve and other software currently available to the Building Department to develop accurate and comprehensive reports.

According to the press release from the Comptroller’s office, “Through Citizenserve, TONH has access to a comprehensive digital toolkit for modernizing the building permit process both internally and externally. The town is not fully leveraging the capabilities of the system to improve process flow, facilitate communication, and enable constituents to easily track their permit applications online. More effective use of the platform could improve constituent and employee satisfaction, increase efficiency and transparency, and help the Building Department to standardize processes and implement quality control.”

“The problems at the Building Department didn’t happen overnight so they’re not going to be fixed by band-aids and PR gimmicks. We have to get this right,” said Supervisor DeSena. “That means developing permanent, long-term solutions that address not only procedural deficiencies but speak to a workplace culture that lacked accountability. We’re working towards a unified set of best practices that are not only sensible but also serve to break that entrenched culture.”

“Ultimately, we have duty to the residents and professionals who work with the building department so we’ll be keeping the public informed about each of these efforts,” said Supervisor DeSena. “The building department is one of the most forward-facing services that the town has with the public. It impacts both homes, businesses and even public safety, so it affects every aspect of our quality of life.”

The full report is accessible in the Field Audit section of the Comptroller’s website, or directly at: https://www.nassaucountyny.gov/DocumentCenter/View/43931/Review-of-TONH-Building-Department-Permitting-Process.

—Original press release from the
Nassau County Comptroller’s Office

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