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I first started looking at the 311 complaints a little more in depth when I decided one night (to the accompaniment of noise of course) to see how many complaints were closed out with “conditions not observed.” Which I understood to be English for bureaucratese: “Piss off, we have better things to do.”

Months of sleepless nights later, the problem resolved itself into three letters – DOB, the department of Buildings, which issues permits for construction in New York City. But the noise from construction is the responsibility of the department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Regulatory capture is rarely this elegant.

Brookfield Properties or its contractor gets noise permits (DOB calls them “After Hours Variance”) without any problem because the person(s) at DOB issuing the permits is/are insulated from the outcome. The permit-issuer never has to review any permit filing and say to the entity filing the permit – “There are complaints that you’re making too much noise at 3am, your work is not of an emergency nature, what assurances can you give us that you will do your work quietly, with the proper abatement in place, so as not to disturb the residents in the neighborhood?”  No such accountability. As far as I know.

To my knowledge, even if DEP writes them up for jackhammer drilling without the required noise abatement, what happens? They pay the fine, if there is one, and get on their merry way.  If the fine is cheaper than the cost of following noise abatement protocols? Let’s say the work is expected to take 10 days and the cost of following the noise abatement protocols is $10,000 and the fine is $500. The math encourages violations. Like points on your driving license which raise the cost of repeated violatons, if  you get barred (by the Dept. of Buildings) from getting permits if you have more than X number of violations – what then? You could incorporate under a new LLC and come back, but I doubt if it gets to that point. Blocking that evasive technique requires only that permits also name the contractor/principals. But as I said, I doubt it comes to that. When penalties are clear and disincentivize a targeted behavior, that behavior declines rapidly.

The odds of this kind of accountability being put into place? Maybe when we have public financing of elections. Zero chance till then. We were talking about DOB and DEP, how did we get to elected officials? That’s my basic premise – that only elected officials have oversight over government departments and agencies – not you and I.  Governments lean in the direction they are pushed by those who govern us.  Departments and agencies will lean towards communities of people if they are pushed to do so by elected officials, and that won’t happen till elected officials are not beholden to the private actors financing their elections.

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