North Hempstead Building Commissioner John Niewender, pictured in 2014, heads...

North Hempstead Building Commissioner John Niewender, pictured in 2014, heads a department that Nassau's comptroller found has "significant" problems. Niewender previously said he hoped the comptroller's audit, which Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena requested, would show the department was underfunded. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Nassau comptroller’s audit of North Hempstead’s building department found “significant” deficiencies, including a flawed online permit application system, a lack of communication with residents and confusion about the chain of command after a change in power in the town's top office.

The agency did the 18-month audit at the request of Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, who had cited a monthslong backlog of building permit applications as a persistent problem in what she said was a “scandal-plagued” department.

“We found significant operational deficiencies and have provided detailed recommendations that can help the building department improve efficiency and increase transparency,” Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips said in a statement her office released Tuesday with an 88-page audit report.  “In addition, the audit revealed that a cultural shift toward prioritizing constituent service would benefit the town, its residents and business professionals.”  

DeSena publicly called for the examination in July 2022, seven months after taking office as the first Republican-supported candidate to lead the town in more than three decades. 

In 2007, a 16-month probe into corruption allegations led to the arrests and convictions of several town building employees.

DeSena said in a statement Tuesday the audit confirmed “the town’s historically dysfunctional Building Department is in desperate need of an overhaul” after “a number of issues” resulted in losses of both time and money for frustrated residents and businesses.

She added: “At the heart of these difficulties rests a departmental lack of accountability, that unfortunately was exacerbated by a politicized Town Board who restructured the administrative process in 2021 to intentionally deny me necessary oversight.” 

DeSena said the current town board — now under Republican control — would make changes based on the audit.

Thomas McDonough, a union leader for building department employees, previously called the town department “grossly understaffed” in reaction to DeSena's call for the audit.

McDonough said Tuesday he still was reviewing the audit report and repeated that the department was understaffed.

Building Commissioner John Niewender said previously he hoped the audit would exonerate the department and show it was underfunded. The comptroller's examination caused internal friction in the department while underway, with DeSena in February 2023 calling on building officials not to obstruct the audit.

Niewender wouldn't turn over some documents without a subpoena or a Freedom of Information Law request until DeSena intervened, a comptroller's office spokeswoman said at the time.

But a town spokesman previously said Niewender had provided additional records to the comptroller's office after clarification that the audit had been expanded — an expansion the comptroller's spokeswoman said hadn't happened.

Niewender also suggested in an email to Newsday at the time that there were some legal concerns about turning over records if the county hadn't filed a FOIL request with the town.

Niewender said Tuesday the auditors had told him he would get to review the report and comment before its release, but that he didn't get that chance. He declined to comment further.

The Democratic-led majority on the town board also pushed back during the audit process in February 2023, with now-former Councilwoman Veronica Lurvey accusing DeSena of interfering and saying “it would be deeply disturbing if the supervisor were trying to politicize or unethically influence the audit.”

About a week later, the town board passed legislation requiring DeSena to provide a report on a review she said she did that led her to ask for the audit.

DeSena said at the meeting where the measure passed that she never said she had created a report, but would comply and "create the report that you have asked for."

It was unclear Tuesday if the supervisor ever submitted such a document to town board members.

Democratic Councilman Robert Troiano reacted Tuesday to the audit report by applauding former Supervisor Judi Bosworth for implementing the online permit system, saying new systems have "learning curves" and he looked forward to "continued improvements."

The audit findings point to the change in administration after DeSena's election as creating confusion among department heads, saying “it became unclear who held what authority and to whom the staff were required to report.”

The report adds that this “led to confusion regarding from whom they were required to take directions” when it came to the implementation of an online portal for permit applications “and the correction of problems and errors.”

The auditors focused on the permitting process and reviewed procedures from 2020 until 2023.

The audit from the office of Phillips, a Republican, who, like DeSena, took office in 2022, pins what it calls the “inefficiency” of the building department on “mismanagement at the highest level of town government and by a town board that effectively controlled departmental decision making, hampering its ability to bring about the technological and cultural change needed to make the necessary improvements.”

The audit report identifies the town’s implementation of Citizenserve, software used through a portal for online permit applications, as a factor that led to permit backlogs.

When town officials introduced the online permit application system in November 2020, the software was “not well-developed” and made the site hard to use, the report states. 

It adds that building department personnel weren't brought on to lead the project until about two months later. 

Difficulties with the technology's use ranged from not being able to upload old files of properties to duplicating user applications, the report says.

The audit report also identifies other deficiencies, including:

Staffers weren't adequately trained to use the online permit processing system, The system isn't user-friendly and provides little to no support for applicants, The town's 311 call center, which residents use to voice concerns, didn't have employees trained to handle questions about the permit system until late 2022,.

The report says about 30,000 residential properties and 4,000 commercial properties are within the jurisdiction of the building department, and from 2019 through 2022, it received 33,787 permit applications and issued 23,250 permits.

Recommendations include restructuring Citizenserve to improve work flow and applicant use, standardizing procedures and training staff to ensure accuracy in processing permit applications and letting applicants speak with building staff throughout the permitting process.

Phillips said in an interview Tuesday the town is underutilizing Citizenserve and tapping further into the software's capabilities could solve many of the town’s permitting process issues.

“We provided the road map,” Phillips said. 

A Nassau comptroller’s audit of North Hempstead’s building department found “significant” deficiencies, including a flawed online permit application system, a lack of communication with residents and confusion about the chain of command after a change in power in the town's top office.

The agency did the 18-month audit at the request of Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, who had cited a monthslong backlog of building permit applications as a persistent problem in what she said was a “scandal-plagued” department.

“We found significant operational deficiencies and have provided detailed recommendations that can help the building department improve efficiency and increase transparency,” Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips said in a statement her office released Tuesday with an 88-page audit report.  “In addition, the audit revealed that a cultural shift toward prioritizing constituent service would benefit the town, its residents and business professionals.”  

DeSena publicly called for the examination in July 2022, seven months after taking office as the first Republican-supported candidate to lead the town in more than three decades. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nassau's comptroller just finished an 18-month audit of North Hempstead's building department.
  • The audit found "significant" problems, including a flawed online permit application system.
  • The audit prompted internal town friction while it was underway.
  • North Hempstead's supervisor, who asked for the audit, said the town board would make changes.

In 2007, a 16-month probe into corruption allegations led to the arrests and convictions of several town building employees.

DeSena said in a statement Tuesday the audit confirmed “the town’s historically dysfunctional Building Department is in desperate need of an overhaul” after “a number of issues” resulted in losses of both time and money for frustrated residents and businesses.

She added: “At the heart of these difficulties rests a departmental lack of accountability, that unfortunately was exacerbated by a politicized Town Board who restructured the administrative process in 2021 to intentionally deny me necessary oversight.” 

DeSena said the current town board — now under Republican control — would make changes based on the audit.

Thomas McDonough, a union leader for building department employees, previously called the town department “grossly understaffed” in reaction to DeSena's call for the audit.

McDonough said Tuesday he still was reviewing the audit report and repeated that the department was understaffed.

Building Commissioner John Niewender said previously he hoped the audit would exonerate the department and show it was underfunded. The comptroller's examination caused internal friction in the department while underway, with DeSena in February 2023 calling on building officials not to obstruct the audit.

Niewender wouldn't turn over some documents without a subpoena or a Freedom of Information Law request until DeSena intervened, a comptroller's office spokeswoman said at the time.

But a town spokesman previously said Niewender had provided additional records to the comptroller's office after clarification that the audit had been expanded — an expansion the comptroller's spokeswoman said hadn't happened.

Niewender also suggested in an email to Newsday at the time that there were some legal concerns about turning over records if the county hadn't filed a FOIL request with the town.

Niewender said Tuesday the auditors had told him he would get to review the report and comment before its release, but that he didn't get that chance. He declined to comment further.

The Democratic-led majority on the town board also pushed back during the audit process in February 2023, with now-former Councilwoman Veronica Lurvey accusing DeSena of interfering and saying “it would be deeply disturbing if the supervisor were trying to politicize or unethically influence the audit.”

About a week later, the town board passed legislation requiring DeSena to provide a report on a review she said she did that led her to ask for the audit.

DeSena said at the meeting where the measure passed that she never said she had created a report, but would comply and "create the report that you have asked for."

It was unclear Tuesday if the supervisor ever submitted such a document to town board members.

Democratic Councilman Robert Troiano reacted Tuesday to the audit report by applauding former Supervisor Judi Bosworth for implementing the online permit system, saying new systems have "learning curves" and he looked forward to "continued improvements."

The audit findings point to the change in administration after DeSena's election as creating confusion among department heads, saying “it became unclear who held what authority and to whom the staff were required to report.”

The report adds that this “led to confusion regarding from whom they were required to take directions” when it came to the implementation of an online portal for permit applications “and the correction of problems and errors.”

The auditors focused on the permitting process and reviewed procedures from 2020 until 2023.

The audit from the office of Phillips, a Republican, who, like DeSena, took office in 2022, pins what it calls the “inefficiency” of the building department on “mismanagement at the highest level of town government and by a town board that effectively controlled departmental decision making, hampering its ability to bring about the technological and cultural change needed to make the necessary improvements.”

The audit report identifies the town’s implementation of Citizenserve, software used through a portal for online permit applications, as a factor that led to permit backlogs.

When town officials introduced the online permit application system in November 2020, the software was “not well-developed” and made the site hard to use, the report states. 

It adds that building department personnel weren't brought on to lead the project until about two months later. 

Difficulties with the technology's use ranged from not being able to upload old files of properties to duplicating user applications, the report says.

The audit report also identifies other deficiencies, including:

  • Staffers weren't adequately trained to use the online permit processing system.
  • The system isn't user-friendly and provides little to no support for applicants.
  • The town's 311 call center, which residents use to voice concerns, didn't have employees trained to handle questions about the permit system until late 2022.

The report says about 30,000 residential properties and 4,000 commercial properties are within the jurisdiction of the building department, and from 2019 through 2022, it received 33,787 permit applications and issued 23,250 permits.

Recommendations include restructuring Citizenserve to improve work flow and applicant use, standardizing procedures and training staff to ensure accuracy in processing permit applications and letting applicants speak with building staff throughout the permitting process.

Phillips said in an interview Tuesday the town is underutilizing Citizenserve and tapping further into the software's capabilities could solve many of the town’s permitting process issues.

“We provided the road map,” Phillips said. 

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