Most apartments in Spring Valley haven't seen a fire inspector in 13 years, putting residents and the village's 125 volunteer firefighters in danger, officials said.
The neglect leaves tenants and firefighters uncovering violations only after the structures begin to crumble or burn.
"It's irresponsible and it's dangerous," said Rockland County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren, who was unaware Spring Valley's inspections had stopped for more than a decade. "There are lots of violations all over the place. . . . Spring Valley is the probably the worst in terms of building violations in all of Rockland and there's no reason for them not to get done."
Spring Valley Fire Chief Larry Bolson, who thought inspections had stopped "a few years ago," said the danger of each fire is heightened.
"When I pull up to the scene, I always assume the worst," Bolson said. "It's a slow, methodical process and we don't breathe until everyone comes home. It definitely scares us."
Raymond Guarnuccio, Spring Valley's fire inspector for the past 23 years and a captain at the fire department, said the inspections haven't been getting done and puts the blame on lack of manpower and resources from the village.
"With the population we have, we're really outnumbered," said Guarnuccio, 62, who earned $52,094 in 2013 and is Spring Valley's only full-time fire inspector. There is also a part-time inspector. "We really don't have enough staff," Guarnuccio said.
ANNUAL REQUIREMENT GOES NEGLECTED
Under the village code, the more than 1,200 multiple-dwelling buildings -- housing about 5,000 units -- must be checked out by a fire inspector each year. Guarnuccio, whose office is operating at half its normal staff, spends his time reacting to unsafe building conditions that firefighters stumble upon instead of actively issuing summonses.
"It's hard when you have two hands and two feet and seven hours in a day," chief village Building Inspector Walter Booker said. "But a little blame gets put on all of us. Me, Ray, the village, the tenants, the owners. Everyone has a stake in this."
Spring Valley trustees Joseph Gross and Anthony Leon said the board has been aware that inspections have stopped, but said its enforcement lies under the direction of Mayor Noramie Jasmin.
Jasmin, who was arrested on April 2 on a charge of mail fraud, said: "Bear with me. I want to speak to you but I can't."
Jasmin and Deputy Mayor Joseph A. Desmaret are accused of conning two fellow members of the Village Board to vote for a favored developer -- Moses "Mark" Stern -- unaware that Jasmin had a financial stake in the sale of the 2.25 acre site, according to federal officials. The case sparked a widespread corruption probe that has ensnared four other political figures, including state Sen. Malcom Smith (D-Queens). Jasmin and Desmaret face 20 years behind bars if convicted.
Bolson, who was born and raised in Spring Valley, said he's watched the "beautiful" place he once loved turn into a village he doesn't recognize.
One crumbling complex, the rent-stabilized 196-unit property dubbed Avon Gardens, was once known for its family atmosphere, where neighbors would enjoy barbecues and parties on their front laws.
Now, roof shingles and gutters hang loose from boxy, two-story brick buildings that are literally falling apart. It has been neglected for years by its owner and village officials -- so much so that two buildings had to be condemned in 2011.
"This is what happens when you don't have routine inspections because the buildings are falling apart," Wren said. "There's politics involved but we have to make sure we push back."
POOR PEOPLE, POORER CONDITIONS
Wren noted that tenants living in these uninspected buildings are mostly poor, working class people. Of the village's 32,000 residents -- nearly half of whom are foreign-born -- 21 percent live under the poverty line. The per capita income, at just over $18,000, is 40 percent below the state's average of $31,796.
The last documented violations issued to Avon Gardens date to the mid-1990s. Booker and Guarnuccio could not remember the last time a village official had inspected the decrepit complex.
Now, the twenty-four remaining tenants, who are mostly Hispanic and black, will soon be forced out of the dilapidated housing.
They claim Ephraim Fruchthandler -- the owner of Empire State Management Co. and Avon Gardens Associates, L.P., both of which control the property -- intentionally neglected the complex for years. They suspect that they fell prey to a scheme to knock down the five deteriorating two-story buildings they call home and erect higher-end townhouses.
"We don't think that's legal, but knowing what's going on now in the village, I'm sure money is being exchanged to be able to do it," said tenant Victor Garcia, 47.
Fruchthandler did not return calls for comment.
Booker made his first inspection of the Avon Gardens complex in years in November 2011, only after 60 tenants showed up at a board meeting to complain about the conditions. What he found "shocked" him.
"I kicked the side of the building and bricks started to fall out," he said. "A woman came out and said she felt the building shake."
Still, no violations were issued to Fruchthandler because he has been "complying" with orders to vacate the residences so they can be torn down, Booker said.
"When we first questioned the mayor about it, she didn't answer us," Spring Valley Trustee Demeza Delhomme said. "No building inspector can allow a complex to go down without telling the mayor that it's taking place. It's on the mayor of Spring Valley and the village inspectors."