Fishtown building collapse inspires construction enforcement bill

A police officer secures the block as investigators survey a demolition site that turned deadly at the corner of Jefferson and Bailey Streets in North Philadelphia on June 04, 2018.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

A police officer secures the block as investigators survey a demolition site that turned deadly at the corner of Jefferson and Bailey Streets in North Philadelphia on June 04, 2018. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Philadelphia City Council wants to finance a crackdown on unsafe construction.

A building collapse last week in Fishtown and another recent collapse in Germantown has inspired Councilmember Cindy Bass to introduce legislation that would put $2 million in city funds towards the cost of hiring more building inspectors and police officers to visit construction sites.

The bill would earmark $1.4 million for the Philadelphia Police Department and $600,000 for the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I).

“Historically, there was police department interaction on stop-work orders, but that went away with budget cuts over the years,” said Bass. “We’re saying bring that back, it’s very important. We see what’s happening as a result of not having it.”

The Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson said officials are reviewing the legislation.

People both inside City Hall and out have raised concerns over recent staffing levels at L&I. Developers have long called for more inspectors, saying that the permit approval process takes longer than necessary because of their limited numbers.

The city currently employs 169 inspectors. In fiscal year 2017, each building inspector was responsible for 6,095 properties and each code inspector responsible for 7,720 properties, according to data circulated by Councilman Bobby Henon.

Henon introduced legislation at the end of January that would change the city charter to require minimum staffing levels of 800 building inspectors, essentially quintupling the department’s ranks.

That bill raised eyebrows because Henon had the bill introduced on his behalf while he pled not-guilty to a myriad of charges brought by federal prosecutors, including an accusation that he tampered with L&I to punish employers who didn’t use electricians’ union workers. The bill would create a contractor review board, which the real estate industry argues could be weaponized against non-union companies.

Bass said that she hadn’t consulted with Henon on her bill. Not yet, at least.

“We have not had collaboration on it, but that does not mean we won’t,” said Bass. “There will probably be some discussion between us on ways to work together to make both bills more comprehensive.”

Council will consider the mayor’s next budget next month. The bill does not specify a revenue source for the $2 million.

Building Industry Association vice president Leo Addimando said the construction industry supports more money for L&I enforcement but that Bass’s measure may have trouble gaining traction without more details on where its funding would come from.

“In general, the BIA would support more money to L&I, and the police to help with L&I related enforcement matters,” said Addimando. “The issue with this bill is that it doesn’t specify what is being cut to free up the $2 million and without that, the bill doesn’t have much of a chance.”

Bass said that the collapse in Fishtown and another recent collapse on the 500 Block of East Johnson Street in Germantown adds urgency to her bill. In 2013 a building collapse on Market Street in Center City took six lives, and a house collapse in Brewerytown last summer killed a veteran construction worker.

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