Eric Ulrich wanted his agency to take over FDNY inspections that lobbyists and political donors have long hated.
BY: SALLY GOLDENBERG, JOE ANUTA | 11/04/2022
NEW YORK — Before New York City’s buildings commissioner resigned amid a criminal probe Thursday, he was a rising star in the Adams administration angling to expand his agency’s power and seize responsibilities outside its purview.
Now ex-Commissioner Eric Ulrich’s surreptitious plan to subsume certain inspections handled by the FDNY is in limbo, as Mayor Eric Adams figures out who will lead the Department of Buildings going forward.
Shortly after being promoted in May from the nebulous role of mayoral adviser to head of an agency with a $239 million budget, Ulrich saw an opportunity to further Adams’ goal of limiting municipal bureaucracy. By the following month, the former Republican City Council member was hatching a plan to assume a host of inspection responsibilities from the FDNY that developers had long complained took so long they slowed down business growth, according to 11 people briefed on or involved in the matter.
The proposed change appeared to comport with the mayor’s goal of government efficiency, while appeasing lobbyists and political donors complaining about the pace of FDNY inspections. An annual city report showed a slowdown in activity conducted by the Bureau of Fire Prevention, which inspects and regulates a host of structures and equipment.
Ulrich was so adamant about the reform, he brushed off FDNY officials’ concerns in a multi-agency Zoom meeting several months ago, saying he did not care if he was violating the city’s administrative code so long as he sped up what had become a sluggish process, according to two officials who attended the meeting and a private-sector employee who was briefed on the discussion by a third meeting attendee.
“He very nonchalantly and very aggressively said he didn’t care,” said the private-sector employee, requesting anonymity to speak freely about a closed-door discussion. “The internal politics of how to win and how to be a star — that’s what he’s focused on. He doesn’t know anything about the [FDNY.]”
Ulrich has not responded to calls and messages seeking comment.
Within City Hall, the mayor’s team readily describes Ulrich as an ambitious go-getter unafraid to butt heads in the interest of improving his notoriously Byzantine agency’s operations. That same ambition rankled FDNY officials, who are responsible for green-lighting permits and inspecting buildings to ensure they are up to the city’s fire codes.
Nevertheless, Ulrich had data on his side. The amount of time it took the FDNY to conduct fire alarm inspections doubled in recent years from one month to two, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. And inspection numbers more broadly have not recovered from their pandemic slump, which the agency blamed on Covid-era staffing shortages and constraints on access to buildings.
The trend has frustrated some well-heeled city lobbyists and developers who have ties to the mayor, according to interviews with three of them.
“Every lobbyist had [Ulrich’s] phone number,” one city-based lobbyist said, on the condition of anonymity. “He was very responsive when we reached out — always, every time. I only asked him for one thing and he did it right away.”
FDNY employees warned shift would endanger firefighters and New Yorkers writ large.
“If there is an issue, they should give the department the resources it needs to speed things up even further,” Andrew Ansboro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association union, said in an interview this week. “But taking fire inspection duties away from the FDNY is a recipe for disaster — firefighters have lost their lives as a result, and we will fight this every step of the way.”
Three FDNY unions, including Ansboro’s, penned a recent letter to City Hall reminding officials of a fatal 2006 fire in the Bronx. The structure had been vetted under the building department’s self-certification program, in which architects and engineers sign off on their own blueprints.
“The thing that is most concerning to me is the self-certification component, as well as some of the more intricate inspections that fire inspectors are better trained to do,” said Council Member Joann Ariola, who chairs the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. “[Though] I also understand the opposite side, which is trying to alleviate the backlog.”
Fellow Republican Council Member Joe Borelli said self-certification has proved a blessing to the city. He supports moving permitting and plan reviews to the buildings department, but he wants the FDNY to maintain control over physical inspections.
How far the mayor’s office intends to cut into the duties of fire inspectors is unclear without Ulrich helming the agency.
“Mayor Adams has made cutting red tape and getting small businesses open core priorities of his administration, without ever sacrificing public safety — and he has taken significant steps to advance those goals over the last 10 months. But as the mayor has said, we have more work to do so new businesses open and our city’s comeback can continue,” mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak said. “The administration is continuing to evaluate which agency is best positioned to expedite fire alarm filings and related inspections while always prioritizing safety.”
Darryl Chalmers, a deputy chief inspector with the FDNY, said he sat down with the mayor’s team this week in a push to keep the responsibilities in his agency.
“We are the gurus for the whole planet when it comes to fire safety,” he said, arguing not all FDNY divisions are backlogged. “And if we’re not behind in our inspections, why would they want to give it to DOB?”
Ulrich stepped down from his $243,171-a-year job Thursday — days after prosecutors from Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s office reportedly seized his phone and questioned him in relation to a criminal gambling probe. Ulrich allegedly had lost money to organized crime affiliates in card games and then attempted to steer city contracts to pay off his debts, according to a report in the New York Post.