Understaffed code enforcement office struggles to keep up

Tom Malley looks forward to the year’s first snowfall.

Charged with enforcing zoning and housing codes, Malley knows the snow hides trash on city streets. Although not a solution, less trash seen on the streets means fewer calls to his office, for a while at least.

“It gives me a chance to breathe,” Malley said in February, explaining that once spring arrived, he and his longtime partner Nelson Ortega would be extremely busy.

“We will be getting calls left and right,” Ortega said in agreement. “Trash, water flowing into people’s properties . . . we are going to spend a lot of time with stuff like that.”

At the time of their interview, the two inspectors were the entire code department, as former department supervisor Laura Games had just quit in January.

Ortega and Malley are finally getting some help. Ortega was recently promoted to supervisor (replacing Games), and former Hudson code officer Robert Sousa was hired to replace him.Former state liquor enforcement officer Kyle Metcalf is filling a fourth position funded through a three-year federal lead paint grant.

Even with a four-member staff, the men have their work cut out for them.

In a city with a 2006 population of about 90,000 people living in 35,000 housing units, of which 13,500 are rentals, they are responsible for investigating all housing, zoning, and other complaints that come to them through phone, letter or in person.

The addition of Metcalf makes for the largest staff the department has had since it became its own department in 2001, yet the officers say the workload demands more.

Because of staffing challenges over the years, Malley and Ortega said they have become adept at setting priorities. Long gone are the days when the department had administrative help, so the officers must split their time on the streets with handling paperwork. What is lost, they say, is the ability to be proactive.

“I don’t have any time to think about the future,” Malley said. “Because the fact is, I am too busy dealing with the present.”

‘White flag’ on staffing

The note attached to a resident’s January 2005 complaint about trash in the Tree Streets contained a white flag for anyone paying attention.

“This complaint will be addressed on a priority basis,” Malley wrote at the top of the complaint filed in the city computer system. “We need more help. Plain and simple.”

An inspector for the city since 1986, Malley has seen code enforcement duties expand while the staff assigned to handle them shrank.

The first major cuts were in 1998, when the city formed a three-person code enforcement unit within the Planning and Building Department under then-Mayor Donald Davidson.

At that time, code enforcement duties increased to include zoning, site plan, signage and wetland violations. Until then, the officers had focused solely on housing issues, Malley said.

“It was a separate division with its own secretary, and it had eight full-time employees,” Malley said.

Before the other duties were transferred to code enforcement, Malley said code enforcement officers had a better idea of the city’s housing issues because neighborhood inspections were more comprehensive.

The inspectors would target a street for rental properties, he said, and would set up inspections by mailing out notices to various property owners and property managers.

“Proactive was an active thing, back then,” Ortega said.

“Extremely proactive,” Malley chimed in, adding that even the computer system at that time had been customized for better code enforcement results.

“We had a great system of how to issue violations,” he continued, describing how the older computer operating system, a VAX/VMS system, automated the process.

Inspectors would enter data into the computer system prompting the issuance of the violation on white paper, Malley explained. The inspector would then mail that copy of the violation to the property owner.

If the inspector did not go back into the system to amend the violation within the 30-day period allowed for a reinspection, the computer would automatically spit out a yellow citation which did two things: alert the inspector to a compliance issue and fine the property owner $15.

“Which was a great power of enforcement,” Malley said. “People didn’t want citations, so they would get back to us within 30 days of the inspection to make sure that they had a reinspection.”

The VAX system also had a cheat sheet of codes for common violations, making it even more user friendly and efficient.

“I could inspect a huge apartment building in about two hours and enter information in the VAX in about 15 minutes. Everything from that point forward was automatic. I could forget about it and go to the next building,” Malley said.

The current computer system, instituted about five years ago, actually works against the job, Ortega and Malley said.

“We didn’t like it right away,” Ortega said.

With the current system, the inspectors ideally are supposed to enter a complaint into the computer when they get it and, after investigating the complaint, must write a formal letter to the property owner. From there, the situation is monitored and more letters must be written depending on what happens or doesn’t happen with the property issue.

Gone were the automatic $15 citations. Instead, stubborn enforcement issues lingered until taken to district court.

Time spent on the newer system has been enormous in comparison with the previous system, Ortega said. Because of that he refuses to use a laptop out in the field.

“We have landlords who don’t want us there and tenants who don’t want us there. I am not going to park outside after an inspection and take a half hour to 45 minutes to input information,” Ortega said.

Politics have also hampered department operations throughout the years, the men said.

At one point, Malley and Ortega said they were asked to be “the kindly gentlemen” of code enforcement. At other times the interference was more blatant. Property owners would call the mayor’s office, hoping to get enforcement matters “pushed through.”

“We cited them for something and they’d call,” Ortega said. “I literally told people, ‘Well, that was your first mistake.’ ”

Some cases got so bogged down in politics that Ortega simply dropped them out of sheer frustration.

“Tom and I are not ‘yes’ people,” he said.

While he couldn’t recall specific instances, former Mayor Bernie Streeter admitted to interfering in code department business.

“Yeah, I leaned on some people in code, because frankly, I thought they were anti-business,” Streeter said.

Streeter said he received complaints from contractors and others stating that the permit process took too long.

“Time is money,” Streeter said.

Overall, Streeter said he only intervened when it was apparent to him that the system wasn’t working.

“They are very bureaucratic in that department,” Streeter said.

“My style was to try and get problems resolved.”

Enforcement by phone

Because of the increased workload and time involved in writing up complaints – often compounded by computer issues – both Malley and Ortega say they have gone to using the “default” system of just picking up the phone.

“I know the landlords out there,” Malley said. “I know that when I call, or he calls, and we say, ‘I need this done by X number of days,’ and we come back in that timeframe, it is going to be done.”

Area landlords know the code enforcement officer’s time is precious, Ortega said, and most have learned not to test their patience after a verbal request to resolve an issue.

“I know that they are going to take care of it because they would rather fix it than have me go there,” Ortega said.

Unofficial contact by telephone may be the most efficient, but it doesn’t leave a paper trail. If a landlord is constantly being told to straighten up, the record may not be there.

Ortega admits as much, but says he treats problem landlords differently.

“I know who those people are,” he said. “I will get a complaint from a certain person and I will know just from talking to them, that, OK, I am putting this in the computer. You just learn.”

Although he thinks a six-person code enforcement department is what a city the size of Nashua needs, Ortega said adding one more code enforcement officer would do wonders for the city.

“I would take a load off because right now all we can do is react to a complaint,” Ortega said. “In order to make things work and put the city on a positive level, back on track, we need to be proactive and we can’t do that.”

>> Code enforcement comparisons

The number of code-enforcement officers varies widely in area towns and cities.

City Population Code officers
Nashua 90,000 4
Manchester 110,000 4
Lowell, Mass. 110,000 7

Lawrence, Mass.
71,000 5
Haverhill, Mass. 61,000 1 (part time)
Concord 43,000 1
Milford 15,000 1
Merrimack 27,000 2
Derry 35,000 2

>> Number of inspections varies widely

Inspection data shows how much work Nashua code officials got done in the 13-year period the department underwent staffing and other changes.

>> 1993-94
Housing inspections: 1,142.
Warnings and violations: 1,747.
Two cases of buildings deemed unfit for human habitation were reviewed by the Board of Housing Appeals during the fiscal year and both structures were condemned.

>> 1994-95
Housing inspections: 2,234.
Warnings and violations: 2,677.
Inspectors also conducted 223 targeted inspections of apartment buildings with 4-8 units. Three buildings were posted unfit for human habitation and one of those was demolished.

>> 1995-96
Housing inspections: 1,719.
Warnings and violations: 1,869.
The department condemned seven buildings during the fiscal year.

No statistics recorded in the annual report.

>> 1997-98
Housing inspections: about 330.
Warnings and violations issued: 930.
Zoning and other violations: 310.
One building was condemned.

>> 1998-99
No new statistics recorded in the annual report.

>> 1999-2000
Housing inspections: 1,706.
Warnings and violations issued: 581.
Zoning and other violations: 440.
Two multi-family buildings were condemned. Seven cases were prosecuted in district court.

>> 2000-01
Housing inspections: 2,258.
Warnings and violations issued: 246.
Zoning and other violations: 445.
Two cases were prosecuted in district court.

>> 2001-02
Housing inspections: 2,763.
Violations issued: 1,326.
Zoning and other violations: 584.
Three cases were prosecuted in district and superior courts.

>> 2002-03
Housing inspections: 3,720.
Warnings and violations issued: 1,296.
Zoning and other violations: 392.
Four cases were prosecuted in district court.

>> 2003-04
Inspections conducted: 3,720.
Warnings and violations: 3,266.
Zoning and other violations: 357.
Two cases were prosecuted in district court.

>> 2004-05
Inspections conducted: 5,060.
Warnings and violations: 3,165.
Zoning and other violations: 320.
Six cases were prosecuted in district court.

>> 2005-06
Inspections conducted: 1,534.
Warnings and violations: 298.
Zoning and other violations: 433.

The report noted, “Numbers are down as one code enforcement officer was out for seven months and the other was out for nine weeks during fiscal year 2006.”
Source: Nashua annual reports