Sal Malguarnera is such a fixture at the Brookhaven Town building department that he knows which clerks are battling colds. He can hear other applicants from across the counter and immediately identify their problems.
He's an expediter -- working for fees to help property owners manage the labyrinthine municipal permitting process -- and he and dozens like him have come under regulation on Long Island for the first time.
In response to complaints that some expediters had defrauded customers, Suffolk County on Jan. 1 began requiring those who deal with its health department, and aren't already licensed attorneys, architects or engineers, to register and pay a $100 annual fee. Neither Nassau nor any Long Island town regulates the trade.
"It's something that should be done," said Malguarnera, who has been expediting for 30 years. "Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people, and some who, frankly, don't know what they're doing."
Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), sponsor of Suffolk's law, recalled three constituents complaining about an expediter who charged fees of several thousand dollars but never delivered approvals he promised.
"A person working all day doesn't have time to spend hours at the town building department or county health department, so they pay someone to take care of that process," Browning said. "They shouldn't be taken for a ride."
Knowledge of the systemExpediters occupy a relatively unknown corner of the cumbersome permitting process for everything from backyard decks to large sewer hookups. They find work through real estate agents or contractors, and can shave weeks off of approval times through their contacts and knowledge of the system.
"There isn't anything I can do that you can't," said Malguarnera, 59, of Port Jefferson. "It's just that I do it faster, and more professionally. I make one trip; you make 10 or 15. It's all about knowledge and all about time."
Five expediters have registered to work on behalf of clients with Suffolk's health department, said Labor and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Sammy Chu. The county had mailed applications to 85 expediters before the law became effective. Officials estimate that there are more than 100 practitioners in Suffolk.
Under the new law, county consumer affairs investigators can reject registration requests if expediters have been convicted of fraud or public corruption. Suffolk also can revoke certificates for offenses including "misrepresentation in providing expediting services," and levy fines of up to $5,000.
"It's providing a minimum level of professional standards with people doing business with the county," Chu said.
Madeline Farley, Nassau consumer affairs commissioner, said the department "is unaware of any complaints against this industry."
Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) opposed the law, saying property owners already can seek relief from unscrupulous expediters in Small Claims Court. He said expediters exist because municipal permitting is too complicated and officials should instead address that.
"We're inefficient, so now we're going to charge you to navigate this system?" Cilmi asked. "It makes no sense."
Smithtown Building Director John Bongino said he didn't see a need for registering expediters, as "the market would dictate the good ones and the ones not worth the money."
Registration has supportBut supporters of Suffolk's law say it is proper for the county to register expediters, since officials already license plumbers, electricians and others.
John Pastore, owner of the Ice Cream Cottage in Mastic, said he wishes the law existed when he needed an expediter.
He hired one several years ago when he sought to expand to a full-service restaurant with seating for 125. The expediter, whom Pastore declined to name, said he'd obtain county health department approval to expand his septic system.
Pastore said that after paying a total of $4,750, he learned that the man had never even filed his permit application.
"I'm usually against extra fees or licensing," said Pastore, 55, who hasn't pursued the permit to expand since. "But in this case, this law would have protected a few of us."