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State lawmakers call for Hempstead Building Department probe

On Monday, Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, spoke at a news conference, about how two New York State Senate committees have asked New York's Department of State to investigate the Town of Hempstead Building Department over its response to property damage caused by superstorm Sandy. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Two State Senate committees have asked New York’s Department of State to investigate the Town of Hempstead Building Department over its response to property damage caused by superstorm Sandy, state and town officials said Monday.

The Senate’s investigations and housing committees ”strongly encourage the Department of State to formally and fully investigate the Hempstead Building Department and consider further intervention, including, but not limited to, the placement of a state monitor,” according to an Aug. 5 Senate report provided by Sen. John E. Brooks (D-Seaford).

The request widens a protracted dispute between Hempstead’s first-term Democratic supervisor, Laura Gillen, who has pushed unsuccessfully for more than a year for outside scrutiny of the beleaguered department, and members of the town board’s Republican majority, who have said the town itself should carry out any reforms needed in the agency.

Brooks and Gillen praised the committees’ request at a news conference Monday.

“The continued inaction on behalf of the Building Department, despite my multiple directives to proactively alert homeowners that still have no clue if they are living in a substantially damaged home, has left us no other choice but to hand this department over to the state,” Gillen said.

Gillen also said she has heard complaints about the department “looking the other way” on code violations and “selectively expediting permits for favored homeowners” and businesses.

Building Department Commissioner John Rottkamp did not respond to a request for comment.

Brooks said the state review is necessary to both reckon with prior issues in the department and prepare for future storms.

“The next Sandy is out there,” he said. “We’ve got to review what’s being done and make the changes that are necessary.”

After the 2012 storm, the Building Department designated many houses in the town as substantially damaged, a classification that required residents to carry out costly repairs, sometimes including elevating their homes. But many homeowners were unaware of the designations until they sought unrelated building permits years later, officials have said.

State Department spokesman Lee Park did not answer a question about whether the department will comply with the committees’ request and investigate the town agency.

“The Department of State is reviewing the matter,” Park said.

Republican town Councilman Bruce Blakeman said in a statement: “We recognize that the Building Department has room for improvement and we are addressing those issues.”

He added: “Neither party should be engaging in preelection stunts that do not benefit the taxpayer.”

Gillen and Blakeman are running for reelection in November.

In July, the town board’s five Republicans voted down a resolution to hire an outside auditor of the Building Department, arguing the money could be better spent augmenting the agency itself. The caucus instead released a five-point plan to reform the agency, including adding staff and expanding operating hours.

Michele Insinga, executive director of Adopt A House, a Lindenhurst nonprofit that advocates for Sandy victims, said she has heard complaints about the town Building Department for years.

“This needs to be done,” she said Monday of the possible state review. “It cannot be ignored.”