Violation notices were issued, but never pursued; the plumbing and gas inspector was sleeping on the job, working a second job on city time, and forging inspection records; health, fire prevention and building inspectors rarely communicated.
Welcome to the City of Lowell Inspectional Services Department circa 2009.
The Inspector General investigated. The FBI moved into the office, searched employees’ bags as they entered and left the office and changed the locks at City Hall.
In March 2010, Interim Inspectional Services Director Rosemary Cashman, wrote in a scathing report that the department had “poor oversight of its employees, inadequate record-keeping, inattentive and sometimes neglectful monitoring of some contractors and their construction projects and insufficient concern about public health and safety.”
It had been a decades-old culture in the department that needed to be changed.
City Manager Bernie Lynch blew up the department and embarked on an extensive reorganization aimed at increasing productivity, efficiency and accountability, while making the department more customer friendly.
Oversight of the department, renamed Development Services, was granted to the Department of Planning and Development.
Enter Kendra Amaral.
Amaral, Chief-of-Staff to Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, was hired as the Deputy Director of the DPD, charged with overseeing Development Services in September 2010.
At the time of her hiring, Lynch called Amaral a “rising star,” in Massachusetts municipal government, a phrase he reiterates today when speaking of the soon-to-be former DPD Deputy. Amaral will leave Lowell October 5 to become the Assistant Town Manager in Wilmington, under newly-appointed Town Manager Jeff Hull.
Amaral may be leaving Lowell City Hall, but her legacy will live on for years to come. In two years the culture and operations of the Development Services office has improved dramatically.
“The biggest problem was there was no follow-up and people did not know how to work together as a team,” she said. “There was a mindset that just because things were ‘always done’ a certain way they could not be changed. We changed that.”
No longer do violation notices get tossed in a drawer with no follow-up – cases are seen through to resolution. Some are taken to court. Back violations, some going back five or 10 years have been resolved.
For the first time in its history, the city began attaching liens to properties with outstanding fines, resulting in the collection of more than $100,000.
The permitting process was simplified and contractors who frequently apply for permits are now able to fill out a simple on-line form. The department’s website was updated to include information for residents on popular topics such as snow buildup on roofs and the requirement to place a fence around self-installed swimming pools.
Enforcement of the city’s vacant/foreclosed property ordinance, putting the heat on the banks who own the properties resulted in the collection of more than $600,000 in fines from Bank of America and other major banks. The department also built a relationship with Register of Deeds Dick Howe Jr., who now sends them a monthly report of properties that have gone into foreclosure so the city can issue violation notices to those that do not register with the city, as required by the ordinance.
The department will soon request the City Council amend the ordinance to give them the ability to go after the banks when their appointed local property managers are not responsive.
The sealer of weights and measures function was successfully outsourced to NMCOG, increasing productivity and revenue.
In the 2012 fiscal year, revenues brought in through the sealing function increased by 151 percent over the previous year from $12,935 to $32,500.
What is of greater importance is the sharp decrease in how much the Lowell taxpayer is subsidizing the service. In 2008, the cost was $60,652 which included salary and benefits for a full time city employee; revenue brought in totaled $11,621, leaving the taxpayer footing the bill for $49,031.
Under the contract with NMCOG, the city agreed to pay a flat fee of $40,000 annually. With revenue coming in at $32,500 this past year, taxpayer subsidy fell to $7,500, or 19 percent of the cost, compared to 81 percent in 2008 and 76 percent in 2011.
“It is now a well-functioning operation costing the city less and bringing in more revenue,” said Amaral.
Development Services personnel now work in teams, with building and health inspectors teaming with police and fire officials to target problem areas together. Building Commissioner Robert Marsilia attends Lowell Police CompStat meetings, then dispatches inspection teams to areas that are hot spots for crime.
The department also has improved communication with the Board of Health, immediately informing them when an establishment is closed, as well as providing stat reports on pest control procedures aimed at reducing problems at food establishments.
“We have become a team,” Amaral told Room 50 earlier this week. “Before, it was everyone for themselves, and stay out of the way of the FBI.”
Since the re-organization of Inspectional Services two years ago, the productivity of the city’s code inspectors has nearly doubled from an average annual case load of 362 to 612 per inspector.
The City Council will soon take up a proposal, brought forward by Amaral and Assistant City Manager/DPD Director Adam Baacke to fill the gaps in existing city ordinances to give the city more authority to hold property owners accountable.
For instance, in the past, the city would be notified by the telephone company when a new tenant moved into a rental unit, which would trigger an inspection. However today, many people do not have landlines, making that notification system obsolete. DPD will suggest to the City Council that all rental properties automatically be inspected every three years. They will also be looking to gain the authority to vacate an apartment that logs three code violations or one life-safety violation in a three-year period.
Amaral said she is proud of the work she has done in Lowell, but is excited to be returning to more of a general government role and to be working for Hull.
“My career goal is to be a town or city manager, so this move fits well on that path,” she said.
In Wilmington she is expected to modernize the town’s human resources policies, improve technology and communication, and work on the construction of the new high school. Amaral has extensive experience in keeping a large construction project within its scope, having overseen the $50 million expansion of the Boston Children’s Museum.
Lynch said Amaral certainly will be missed.
“We scored a big win in getting Kendra to come to Lowell,” he said. “She built a highly skilled professional team, instituted a new set of procedures and processes that improve accountability, transparency and user friendliness. On the service delivery side she implemented and improved the way in which we deal with troubled properties through the vacant and foreclosed property program and our receivership program. She was well respected by her fellow employees, the business community and the neighborhoods.
“I certainly expect that she will be doing great things in Wilmington and building her skills and experience,” he added. “She’s a tough act to follow.”