The Nassau County comptroller’s office is set to begin an audit this week of North Hempstead’s building department, a month after Supervisor Jennifer DeSena requested an “impartial assessment” of a department she described as “deeply flawed.”
In a letter to town officials dated Aug. 8, JoAnn Greene, director of field audit for the comptroller’s office, said the review will include “an examination of building department’s operations and procedures (including the online portal), the internal control environment, performance monitoring, and regulatory compliance.”
Town officials confirmed that a meeting with staff from Comptroller Elaine Phillips’ office will happen this week and that the discussion will include the audit process; objectives of the audit; a list of information the town will have to provide and a start date for field work.
The audit is expected to take one year, according to the comptroller’s office. The review period will commence from January 2020.
“Since my first day in office, I have made rehabilitating the building department my number one priority, and this independent and impartial assessment will undoubtedly cut to the core of the problems that have been plaguing the building department for years,” DeSena, who was elected last November, said Tuesday in a statement.
DeSena has cited monthslong backlogs as a persistent problem and a “scandal-plagued” department. The department is led by Commissioner John Niewender and has 51 employees and a 2022 budget of more than $4.5 million, town officials said.
Niewender has been with the department since 2004 and commissioner since 2014. He said Tuesday that he welcomes an outside assessment.
“The audit’s going to show the volume, the movement, the constant flow; and it’s also going to show, based on that volume, how little number of people handle these things and how they handle it,” Niewender said.
In 2007, a 16-month investigation into allegations of corruption led to the arrest and convictions of several building department employees, including the indictment of ex-commissioner David Wasserman. He pleaded guilty to several charges, including grand larceny, and was sentenced to a year in jail. Others pleaded guilty to charges such as accepting cash bribes for permits and scheme to defraud.
Niewender said he is not aware of any recent department scandals and noted that such allegations have hurt staff morale. He also said he hopes the audit will exonerate the department and show that not enough funds have been allotted to properly staff it.
“It took a long time to clear the sins of the past,” Niewender said, but “we’ve come a long way and we’re going to continue to go further.”