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Engineered to Fail

City layoffs are putting a lot of pressure on Hartford's building engineers

Daniel D'Ambrosio

November 27, 2008

Monir Ighani, a mechanical engineer in Hartford's Licenses and Inspections department, is having some sleepless nights. He worries that building plans are sometimes being approved by unqualified personnel and that the city is losing money on projects that are being undervalued by contractors who fudge on their building permits.

Newly hired Development Director David Panagore said he has heard that contractors may be doing work outside the permitting process, which means his department will have to step up enforcement.

Laid off in 2002, Ighani returned to work early in 2005 under an agreement that expanded his responsibilities to include electrical and other engineering. Licenses and Inspections handles some 4,000 to 5,000 applications yearly for everything from replacing a boiler to installing a smoke evacuation system, according to Ighani. It's up to him and one other engineer to make sure things are done right. The department previously had four engineers.

When he came back in 2005, Ighani thought he would only be tapped periodically to help out with concerns outside mechanical engineering. But he quickly found himself swamped.

"At this point it's now become his job to do all this stuff," says George Gould, staff representative for Ighani's union.

Ighani worries the latest round of layoffs in the city will make things worse.

"It turns out very stressful for me," he says in halting English. "I'm doing three people's work. I'm always concerned about public safety."

Liz Kavanah, an environmental health sanitarian for the city, says she hears from contractors who are frustrated with the permitting process. Ighani is required by state law to respond in 30 days.

"I checked with [Ighani] and he is right at 30 days," says Kavanah. "He can't get it done any faster. A lot of our contractors who are building have complained vehemently about the slowness of the process."

Panagore acknowledged he has also heard comments about the timeliness of approvals.

"We want to be as timely as possible and customer driven, while at the same time enforcing requirements of the law," Panagore said.

But Kavanah said some work is being done without pulling permits at all.

"We find that in our capacity," she says. "A business will have a grand opening with a stop work order placed on it by the Building Department and no permits or applications."

And those sleepless nights? Ighani says they're brought on by another symptom of his short-staffed department inspectors doing the work of engineers, signing off on plans they don't have the expertise to evaluate.

"The person examining the document should have the equivalent [expertise] of the professional engineer out there designing the system," says Ighani. "We have to understand the design [to know] if it's up to code or not."

Panagore maintained that "everything we're doing procedurally in terms of signoffs is appropriate." He also said that Ighani is currently the subject of an ongoing disciplinary hearing and investigation. He declined to give any details.

Ighani says the city is also losing about $3 million annually because some contractors are getting away with undervaluing their projects. The cost of a permit is based on the value of the project, and if a contractor claims a $50,000 job is only worth $30,000, the city has just lost about $500 on the permit, which costs about $25 per $1,000 of value. It adds up.

"There are a lot of good contractors and good engineers," says Ighani. "But some don't pay adequate fee. Today as we speak, it's still going on."

Panagore said he would be happy to sit down with Ighani and "talk about these items."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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