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Merrimack Valley

February 26, 2013

Lawrence building commissioner, inspector faulted in building permit blunder

LAWRENCE - An “under-performing” building inspector and a commissioner overwhelmed by his job allowed hundreds of building permits to fall through the cracks before reaching city assessors over a recent two-year period, causing $33.4 million worth of new development to go unreported, an audit released yesterday concluded.

The damage was much less than initially feared when the blunder was uncovered in October, the audit reported. The city was able to bill for all but $31,852 of the $300,000 in property taxes that went uncollected. But the audit cited several failures in the building department that allowed the oversight, including a new commissioner distracted by the task of learning how his department works, an inspector who did not walk 349 building permits down a flight of stairs to the tax assessor at City Hall and a paper record-keeping system that allowed all of it to go undiscovered for as long as two years.

Powers & Sullivan, the Wakefield accounting firm that conducted the audit for the city, said recent improvements in the Inspectional Services Department have reduced the likelihood of similar blunders in the future. It did not identify the enhancements, but the City Council in January approved spending $126,000 for computer software that will automatically transmit data on building permits to tax assessors.

Mayor William Lantigua, City Council President Frank Moran and Sandy Almonte, the chairwoman of the council’s personnel committee, did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment on the audit’s findings.

Committee vice chairman Daniel Rivera, who is running for mayor, said the improvements aren’t enough.

“I still think he should be removed as department head and put back down the line,” Rivera said about Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette, who oversees the Inspectional Services Department and was a building inspector before Lantigua promoted him to run the department three years ago. “It just reflects again on this administration. They think that process and software are the problem. Really, it’s the people running the departments that are lacking in training and qualifications.”

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