Prioritizing safety at L&I

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Basil Merenda has witnessed it first-hand.

Growing up at 29th and Mifflin streets in South Philly’s Grays Ferry neighborhood, Merenda had seen the work and heard the complaints. The term “fly-by-night contractors” seems to make his blood boil.

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“You hear about shoddy workmanship in the neighborhoods,” Merenda said. “The homeowner is being left holding the bag. And God forbid there could be a collapse as a result and some innocent could get harmed or their house compromised. It’s a big, big problem that we’re going to go after.”

Merenda now has the perfect role to make that happen as the city’s Licenses and Inspections Commissioner for Inspections, Safety and Compliance. He will be responsible for enforcing the city’s codes for the safe and lawful construction and use of buildings, as called for under city law. The new role comes after Mayor Cherelle Parker’s decision to split the L&I department, shortly after she took office. Northeast Philadelphia native Bridget Collins-Greenwald is the new L&I Commissioner for Quality of Life, which will manage the city’s response to nuisance businesses or enforcement of legislation regulating AirBnBs, bedbug infestations, or enforcing the city’s plastic bag ban.

Merenda said splitting the department was decided upon after the L&I Task Force recommended it, based on the promise of better efficiency. Merenda chaired the task force.

“We recommended that L&I split up and be divided on the construction and quality of work of life,” Merenda said. “The mayor told me, ‘Basil, I like the report. Go over there and implement it.’ I can’t overemphasize that this is a big deal. It’s historic. The mayor wants to reorganize and reinvigorate L&I. She decided to do it right in the beginning of her administration, rather than down the line, which the report recommended. It’s a historic undertaking by Mayor Parker. She showed her resolve to get things done.”

Merenda attended St. Gabriel’s before graduating from Bishop Neumann High School. He received his undergrad from Villanova University before receiving his master’s in economics at the University of Notre Dame. He returned to the area to receive his Juris Doctorate from Villanova University Law School.

Merenda most recently served as the Department of State’s deputy secretary for regulatory programs, while also serving as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs. He has also previously worked as deputy mayor for labor. He also has worked in the state Department of Labor and the attorney general’s office. In Philadelphia, Merenda also served as Deputy Commissioner for Code Enforcement after beginning his legal career, practicing labor law, representing UFCW Local 1776. He’s certainly a well-known name across the city and state.

“I often joked around that there’s some small town in Pennsylvania with a doctor or some other profession, and on their wall is their license with the nice South Philly Italian name ‘Basil Merenda’ signing their license.”

Merenda said he has already started talking to community groups to get input on what problems need to be prioritized.

“One of the priorities that I want to pursue is stepping up enforcement of these problematic contractors,” he said. “Contractors that are not co-compliant, properly licensed, meeting tax obligations, putting the neighborhoods in jeopardy or not treating their employees properly.”

Merenda said his department is hiring both code enforcement inspectors and building inspectors through June 21. Salary range for code enforcement inspectors is $58,049 to $69,890 per year while building inspectors begin at $58,049 and have career paths up to $83,508. Applications can be filed at www.phila.gov/jobs.

Merenda also said residents can report unlicensed contractors or unpermitted work at 311’s online form or call 311. If they’re outside Philadelphia, they can call 215-686-8686.

Merenda said he’s excited to get to work.

“This is a tremendous personal, professional opportunity and challenge for me to come back to Philly,” Merenda said. “This may be my last hurrah. I’ve been around a number of years and I really thank the mayor for the opportunity. This is the one city department that can have a direct positive impact on the everyday life of every citizen in the city.”

Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro is a reporter for the South Philly Review. Follow him on Twitter @mzimmaro or email at mzimmaro@newspapermediagroup.com

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