Fire marshals and code enforcers in the Town of Islip targeted neglectful homeowners and slumlords at a record pace in 2013, bringing in almost $900,000 in revenue for the town, a 70 percent increase over the previous year.
The town received 3,837 complaints on quality-of-life issues last year -- 25 percent about illegally subdivided housing -- nearly double that in each of the past three years, according to Town Councilman Anthony Senft. The average cost of each ticket has also increased, from $779 in 2012 to $1,136 in 2013. In 2012, the town collected $528,944 in code enforcement fines, according to town spokeswoman Inez Birbiglia.
The numbers of "board-up and cleanups" -- a program instituted by the town to overhaul abandoned homes and properties that often become associated with prostitution and drug use -- have more than quintupled from 35 in 2011 to 187 in 2013, Senft said.
"In a minimum, we're reducing the opportunity for firefighters and residents to get injured in an emergency," Senft said. "And now, the landscaping is clean and free of debris. It makes neighborhoods more appealing."
The increased push to find violations has been possible with increased staff, even while other town departments have shrunk or been shuttered. Two years ago, the Public Safety Enforcement team had just eight investigators and eight fire marshals, said John Carney, Islip's public safety commissioner. Now, Carney operates with 10 full-time and eight part-time fire marshals, along with 13 full-time and four part-time investigators.
This year, he plans to add two full-time fire marshals and two full-time code enforcement officers to the department's total of 86 employees, 48 of which are full-time, 13 part-time and 25 seasonal.
When Supervisor Tom Croci took office in 2012, he was faced with a $26 million deficit. Through department cuts, mergers, 81 layoffs and a 28 percent townwide tax increase, he and his administration reduced the deficit to $11.3 million at the end of 2013. The public safety department's budget has gone from $3.4 million in 2012 to $2.4 million in 2014, Birbiglia said.
"You're talking about an issue that, prior to this administration coming in, they were putting Band-Aids on something that needed to be addressed thoroughly," Carney said. "This administration is actually going out and doing enforcement, doing surveillance, doing intelligence reports, working hand-in-hand with the Third Precinct."
Illegally subdivided homes and apartments have led to health and safety issues for first responders who may be summoned to a house for a fire or other emergency, Senft said. Carney said he battled illegal house subdivisions while he was a volunteer firefighter with the Brentwood Fire Department for 28 years, where he also served as chief.
"When we have firemen and women come to these houses, they enter hallways that no longer exist, living spaces in the basements and garages that aren't supposed to be there," Senft said. "We have illegal construction, people putting up walls and doors and blocking off sections of home that can't be exited."
Senft said he supports efforts to improve the qualify of life in the town, even as he looks to trim government expenses.
"As a Conservative on the board, I believe in reducing the size of town government, but in this area, I believe we should expand so we could enforce town code and reduce some of the danger and provide a good standard of living," Senft said.