July 13, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
In some respects, Hartford's licenses and inspections department
is the emergency Martha Stewart.
Inspectors go out to unsightly properties, declare them dangerous
or unattractive, then offer to help the hapless owners fix up the
It's a public service program. But it's not supposed to be free.
According to a recent city audit, it's close to it.
Since the program began in 1993, the city has failed to collect
on at least $9.2 million worth of repairs done on private property,
according to a recent city audit. The amount is probably higher,
the audit says, because the database keeping track of such things
has some glaring errors and omissions.
"There are all sorts of inaccuracies that we identified, so
we can't just draw a conclusion from it," said H. Patrick Campbell,
the city's chief auditor. "We can't just say it's `X' dollars."
Officials in perennially cash-strapped Hartford say the problem
is largely due to staff shortages and unrealistic expectations. But
they say they're working to correct it.
This is the second audit of the department's property remediation
program - and its related collection practices - in less than three
But the conclusion of this audit is much the same as the August
2002 report: The city, which sends crews to demolish fragile buildings,
trim unsightly yards and detach sagging porches, has not been as
vigilant in collecting on the services it provides.
Once the city orders emergency work done, officials have 30 days
to ask the property owner for payment and, if payment is not received,
to place a lien on the property. The lien creates a legal obligation
to repay the debt when the property is sold.
Filing within 30 days guarantees that the city's liens get priority
over every other debt against that property, with the exception of
property taxes. Liens filed later are still valid, but they then
become secondary to every other lien holder on the property.
The audit found that between June 2002 and June 2004, the city did
$1.6 million worth of demolition and remediation work, using city
employees and outside contractors. During the same period, it collected
$429,000 in costs, some of them incurred in previous years, the audit
When it came to processing liens, the audit found that the licenses
and inspections department did not file them in a timely manner,
if at all.
During the two years examined by the auditors, the department failed
to file liens for about $451,000 worth of work - or 34 percent of
the cost of all remediation work done during those two years.
"In general we found that L& I [licenses and inspections
department] management has not taken action to address the more significant
exceptions and/or recommendations in our  report," the
2004 audit says.
John Palmieri, director of development services, which oversees
the licenses and inspections department, said the problems raised
by the audit are serious, but correctable.
Part of the problem, Palmieri said, is a severe reduction of staffing
in the licenses and inspections department - it lost at least 20
people, including the longtime director, in recent years to layoffs
and early retirements - and an unrealistically short window in which
to file a lien.
"There are all kinds of things that happen. Public works does
a cleanup. They've got to get a bill to us that we can understand.
We've got to prepare information so we can get it to the attorneys," Palmieri
said. "It's a very demanding and burdensome requirement. I think
we should have 60 days by statute, not 30."
"If we had 60 days instead of 30 days, I think 90 percent of
the problem would go away," he said.
Sometimes the bills come in without details about the work done,
Palmieri said. Sometimes they come in written on the back of a napkin.
Palmieri, who began his job with the city only at the end of the
two-year audit period, said the licenses and inspections department
now has a full-time staff devoted to the lien program. He said the
staff, under the leadership of a new L& I director, will continue
to refer the uncollected debt to collection agencies, work with contractors
to get more detailed invoices and perhaps give property owners more
opportunity to do the remediation work themselves.
In some cases, owners prefer that the city handle the matter. That's
what Mary Phil Guinan decided in 2003, after her house was destroyed
in a fire. Having a tough time reaching contractors to demolish her
charred and skeletal Beacon Street home, she assumed that the city
might be able to find a better (and quicker) deal.
Guinan's concern with the lien program was not the lien collection,
she said, so much as the timing of the work and who might qualify
for lien waivers.
The city did send crews to demolish her house - three months after
she asked it to and two months after being cited by the city for
not yet having razed the house.
It cost the city more than $30,000 to demolish Guinan's home and
clean up the debris. Officials put several liens on her property
that equaled that amount, perhaps a little later than 30 days, Guinan
"I felt that my lien may not have been [placed] on time," said
Guinan, Hartford's former Democratic town chairwoman. "But whether
it was on by 30 days or over was not something I was going to dicker
over. They did incur that expense."
And Guinan, with some help from her insurance company, eventually
But what of all the millions in unpaid balances, some dating to
Palmieri said the city will aggressively work on the newer cases.
But it might be realistic to recognize that the oldest, uncollected
cases will be harder to recoup.
"I'm not sure it's going to serve our purposes to identify
all liens that were delinquently placed or never recorded," Palmieri
said. "We're not going to make much headway there."
"To continue to report that there's 8 or 9 million [outstanding]
is probably not a fair portrayal," he said. "It may just
be dated and not relevant."
A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Oshrat Carmiel
is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour today
between 9 a.m. and noon.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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