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Code complaints languish in city, controller charges

| Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh building inspectors fail to address about 16 percent of code violations as quickly as they should, according to an audit released Tuesday by City Controller Michael Lamb.

"They have a number of complaints that are not dealt with in a timely manner, and many of them are serious complaints -- fire prevention, unsafe building conditions," Lamb said.

"They need to better prioritize their actions down there to resolve complaints of a more serious nature in a more timely way."

Auditors examined the status of 34,303 graffiti, fire prevention, electrical, demolition and other Bureau of Building Inspection complaints filed in 2006 and 2007. Of those, 5,008 went unresolved for an average of nine months.

The figures are from February, so they might be higher or lower now, said Lamb.

The inspection bureau has come under intense scrutiny from top city and state oversight officials this year after Public Safety Director Michael Huss discovered major fire safety violations in two Oakland apartments that housed primarily college students.

The buildings were closed in May until repairs were made, but their broken fire escapes and inoperable fire alarm systems highlighted an apparent lack of follow-through by city building inspectors.

Lamb said his report is simply the latest part of his vow to audit each city department and bureau.

Though the Pittsburgh bureau's 72 budgeted staff positions are fewer than in other cities such as Buffalo (90), Cincinnati (95), St. Louis (150) and Cleveland (170), Lamb said it should be able to do a better job.

The bureau's $3.2 million operating budget is smaller than the four other cities'.

Lamb praised the bureau for conducting regular sweeps of blighted neighborhoods, in which inspectors concentrate on houses and businesses spanning a few blocks.

Bureau Chief Sergei C. Matveiev agreed with many of Lamb's findings in a four-page response letter.

He said automating the department would increase efficiency, as would doubling the budget to demolish condemned buildings.

"A substantial commitment has been made to automate the bureau and reduce the time to process complaints," said Matveiev, the third person to lead the bureau since Luke Ravenstahl became mayor in September 2006.

Ravenstahl increased demolition funds to $4 million this year, up from $2 million in 2007. Ravenstahl has proposed spending $5 million on demolitions in 2009. That would pay for about 625 demolitions at a cost of $8,000 per demolition, according to Lamb's audit.

In September, the city purchased 12 wireless, handheld computers at $4,000 apiece for building inspectors to use in the field. The goal is to transmit complaints from the city's 311 hot line to inspectors instantly in hopes of addressing them more quickly.

After a trial period, more computers might be purchased.

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