City looks into cost to cut self-certification

By Alex Christodoulides

Eliminating the much-criticized self-certification process for building plans in which architects vouch that they are adhering to construction and zoning codes would cost the city anywhere from $2.9 million to $7.5 million, a recent study shows.

The city's Independent Budget Office released the report after City Councilman James Oddo (R-Staten Island) asked the agency to estimate the cost of abandoning self-certification, and concluded that doing so would require the city Department of Buildings to hire new plan inspectors to recoup the time needed to examine plans.

“We estimate that eliminating the entire program would require the city to add 69 new positions in the Buildings Dept. and cost the city $7.5 million on an annual basis. There would also be $1.5 million in additional one-time costs in the first year,” the report said.

The IBO estimated that doing so would require 50 full-time plan examiners and 19 support staff.

Eliminating self-certification for plans for one- to three-family homes would be less expensive, costing $2.9 million in annual costs and $511,200 in start-up costs, the IBO said in the report.

Self-certification allows registered architects to vouch that construction plans meet all zoning and code requirements and thus bypass the normal review process during which DOB examiners check compliance.

Self-certification, or professional certification, has been criticized by many civic organizations and elected officials who charge that some architects and engineers abuse the system by filing plans that do not comply with codes.

In fiscal year 2007, 48.5 percent of the 73,830 plans submitted to the DOB were self-certified and the remainder reviewed by a plan examiner, the IBO report said. The study suggested transferring to plan examination some of the 45 staffers in the professional certification audit and inspection unit.

The DOB tries to audit 20 percent of self-certified plans each year, and in fiscal year 2007 it checked 24.3 percent, the IBO report said. For audited plans, the DOB issued revocation notices to 21.5 percent, the IBO said.

In fiscal year 2007, 56 percent of the 16,166 plans filed for one- to three-family homes were self-certified, the IBO report said. The IBO did not say how many of those self-certified plans were audited.

If self-certification was eliminated only for these projects, the DOB would need to hire 15 new examiners and 15 support staff to review all plans for this category of building, the IBO said.

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