Council considers raising vacancy tax to fund more L&I inspectors

Posted: June 07, 2013

AFTER THE Center City building collapse that claimed six lives Wednesday, City Council raised questions yesterday about demolition regulations and sought to renew efforts to crack down on longtime vacant-property owners.

Council President Darrell Clarke also called for additional resources for the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

"I am heartened that the city is poised to increase funding to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, some of which will be used for more inspectors," Clarke said yesterday. "A number of investigations into this tragedy are ongoing, and I would urge everyone to await those results before jumping to conclusions."

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said the city currently has about 40 inspectors.

But City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who issued a report on construction activity and code violations in North Philadelphia last October, said yesterday he began calling for additional L&I inspectors in 2006, during then-Mayor John Street's tenure.

"I testified at a budget hearing [in 2006 or 2007] that L&I needed 80 more inspectors and an additional $3 million," Butkovitz said.

He said L&I did not have adequate staffing then to meet its own goals, one of which was to ensure that any building in danger of imminent collapse be demolished by the city within 24 hours.

In the controller's October 2012 report, Butkovitz cited numerous code violations by contractors in the rapidly developing neighborhoods near Temple University, an area that has become "hot" in recent years as developers meet the demand for the growing student population moving farther off campus.

"We also found inadequate communication among the five departments [L&I, Water, Public Health, Streets and Police] with varying levels of responsibilities for monitoring construction activity," the report said.

In Council yesterday, Clarke introduced a bill that would create a tax on vacant property that would gradually increase to as high as 18 percent of the property's value after 10 years.

Clarke first introduced the bill more than a decade ago, but was unsuccessful in getting it through. He said money from that tax would help L&I increase its number of inspectors.

"My City Council colleagues and I are ready to explore any possible legislative solutions that might prevent similar tragedies in the future," Clarke said.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said she would like to see a detailed report on the collapse from L&I, after which Council will likely call for hearings into the matter.

"At what point, when a permit is issued, when do we go out and conduct a site inspection?" asked Sanchez. ". . . Maybe we need to streamline that to ensure that from permitting to completion, at some point in there we are also going out and inspecting the work."

A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Labor said the Office of Safety and Health Administration sets and enforces the federal workplace safety standards contractors are required to follow.

"The employer ultimately has responsibility to ensure their workers are safe on the job," Joanna P. Hawkins said.

Code enforcement has troubled the city for years.

In an unfortunate twist to Wednesday's collapse at 22nd and Market streets, Common Pleas Judge Berel Caesar was killed in 1997 when an 18-foot sign fell from a deteriorating parking garage at Broad and Pine streets.

That building was owned by the estate of deceased real-estate mogul Samuel Rappaport. The executor of that estate was his protege, Richard Basciano, who is one of the owners of STB Investments, which owned the Market Street building.

Neil Caesar, the son of the deceased judge who now lives in Greenville, S.C., told the Daily News yesterday that he'd heard about the collapse but that he was unaware of the relationship to his father's case.

"I certainly hope that there's no connection because that would suggest that no lessons were learned from that tragedy 16 years ago and it would make it even more of a tragedy," Caesar said. "I hope there is nothing about this case to suggest that people did not learn lessons from the past."

- Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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