Is Philly safer? Butkovitz says no; L&I says he's confused

Posted: May 23, 2014

ARE PHILADELPHIA'S demolition procedures significantly safer today than before the June building collapse at 22nd and Market streets that killed six people inside a Salvation Army thrift shop?

The Department of Licenses & Inspections says yes.

But City Controller Alan Butkovitz says L&I records are such a mess that it's difficult to know.

Yesterday, Butkovitz released a blistering audit that alleged a "culture of informality" within L&I, which he said kept shoddy records and waived demolition-inspection requirements without explanation. He also questioned whether L&I actually visited all the sites it claimed its staffers had inspected following the Market Street collapse.

"It is extremely disheartening for me to stand here today and tell you that there is little, if any, evidence to demonstrate that private demolitions are being conducted any more safely today than they were one year ago," Butkovitz said.

Butkovitz said his auditors faced "concerted obstructionism" and were repeatedly stonewalled by L&I officials who provided shifting explanations for why certain records could not be produced. He said the Nutter administration seemed to respond to last year's tragedy as if it were a "public-relations problem," not a threat to public safety.

"I think it's about an attempt to control the release of information and the spin on one of the biggest crises and biggest disasters to hit city government in decades," said Butkovitz, a potential mayoral candidate in 2015. "I think they've been more interested in how it looks than how it is."

Among the findings in the 31-page report: No supporting documentation for 210 of 442 demolition sites that L&I said it had visited; insufficient inspection records, including missing photographs and documentation of work performed; and for 15 of 18 completed demolitions, inspectors may have failed to comply with newly established procedures.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said the Controller's Office simply misinterpreted the records and drew false conclusions.

"I think that the system is so complicated and antiquated that it's hard to decipher the information presented," he said. "Ultimately, it led to some misconceptions."

Williams said that the 442 demolition sites were, in fact, inspected and that the inspectors did not skip any steps, as the audit alleged. But he acknowledged that the department needs a better data system.

L&I's new Project eCLIPSE system, which is expected to be operable by the end of 2015, should improve data reporting and provide a better accounting of what exactly inspectors are doing on-site.

Regardless, Butkovitz said city officials need to be more transparent about the inner workings of L&I.

"There is clearly an extreme sensitivity on the part of the Nutter administration about this issue," he said.

Twitter: @wbender99


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