Permit Center slowly gaining converts

Still some kinks to iron out, admit city officials

by Dave Gallagher
    When Rich McCudden decided to open Flats Tapas Bar in Fairhaven, he went into the Bellingham Building Services department to get permits expecting the worst – but instead he was pleasantly surprised.
    “We had heard so many horror stories about the permit process, but we found the city to be extremely helpful,” McCudden said soon after opening Flats in January. “We had our permit within four days of applying, and the attitude from the staff seemed to be that they were there to solve problems, not look for them.”
    That’s exactly what City Planning Director Jorge Vega wants to hear, nearly a year after revamping the building services department and creating a one-stop permit center.
    In the spring of 2004, the department was under heavy criticism from the business community. Many complained the process took too long, the customer service was not acceptable and the rules were either too vague or too subjective. It was costing the applicants time and money, creating quite a bit of frustration for anyone who was working on a new building project.
    Vega said the changes that were made have started to change some people’s opinions about the building-permit process, but they still have some work to do to get the system working in a streamlined way.
    “In general, I am hearing more positive reviews from the public. I think things are getting better, but I still think there is room for improvement in streamlining this process,” Vega said.
    Vega’s assessment is being echoed by others who routinely work with the building services department. Architect Dave Christensen said he has been pleased with the one-stop permit center concept, because his plans are being checked more thoroughly. However, he said there are still problems about getting conflicting answers when he talks to different people in the department.
    “There is still a significant problem with the subjective nature of the process. I’ll ask a question and can still get three different answers by talking to three people,” Christensen said.
    Fred Wagner of Grinstad & Wagner Architects said he’s seen improvement in the permitting experience, especially regarding the staff.
    “I’m pleased with the progress they’ve made at the permit center,” Wagner said. “Just the atmosphere when you walk in is different. The staff is more relaxed, and the place has a quieter, less chaotic feel to it. It is a place where you feel like you can get things done.”

The new public-access computer terminals allow permit applicants to check on the status of their permits quickly and easily.

More help coming
    The department hopes to continue improving in the eyes of the public. It recently installed two computers in the public area of the department, allowing permit applicants to log on and check the status of their permit, as well as get detailed information about their property.
    In mid-April, the permit center hopes to have added links to its web site, allowing permit applicants to check their permit status online, 24 hours a day. Later this year, the department also plans on adding a link on the web site to allow applicants to check and see whether their project has passed inspection.
    “The public computer stations took longer to get running than we expected. It was a challenge to come up with a program that would allow the public to have access to their records, but prevent them from making changes or gaining access to areas that weren’t of public record,” Vega said. “But we think this is a big step forward in easing some of the frustrations the public has had in the past, when they were having difficulty finding out what was happening with their permit application.”
    When Vega talks about the fact there is still room for improvement, one challenge that is still perplexing revolves around permit load.
    For example, in late March the permit center was bustling with people submitting applications for projects that they hope to get done this summer and fall, when the weather is good. It’s testing the department, which is currently understaffed because of some personnel changes.
    “We still need to get a handle on anticipating the peak periods in the permit process,” Vega said. “We realize now, for example, that there will be a rush of permit applications at the end of the year if there are rate increases scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. Now that we recognize this, we should be getting better at adjusting accordingly.”
Christensen agreed, saying he’s the busiest now that he’s ever been in 30 years as an architect, and he knows his colleagues are also busy. At the beginning of April, Christensen said he has 50 active projects on his desk.
    “When it gets this busy, projects are getting held up because of the staffing issues at the city,” Christensen said. “I’ve seen significant improvement at the city in the past year, but the jury is still out in terms of handling the busy times.”
    Vega said one of the biggest areas of improvement is in customer service, and that is a result of changing the system.
    Before the Building Permit Center was finished last year, applicants typically had to go to several different locations within City Hall to get their questions answered.
    An applicant might start in the building services department with a question, then go across the hall to public works or check with the fire inspector in yet another office.
    “We had people running around the building talking to different people, sometimes getting different answers to the same question. It is no wonder that people got angry about it,” Vega said.
    The current system has each of the departments in the same office at the permit center, so when an applicant has a question, they can all discuss the problem and all get on the same page.
    “Now people are able to talk to everyone at the same time, instead of bouncing around from department to department,” Vega said. “I think the change has had a positive effect on the employees as well. They are no longer frustrated with the system, so they can focus on answering the questions the customer might have.”
Vega is expecting the computer stations and the web-site access to further improve customer service. The public computer stations currently have two programs that offer a variety of features. Along with checking the status and expected review time of a permit, the public can find out quite a bit of information about their property, such as where the sewer lines are located, the shapes and dimensions of buildings at a specific address and information about common issues such as stormwater treatment.
    Vega said they are also responding to public feedback about the new system and are making adjustments. For example, in the coming months the department plans on being more vigilant about updating its web site, posting information about changes that are taking place, so people can make the adjustments before starting the permit process. They have also started sending out a newsletter to let the public know about changes that are taking place.
    “We really want to have a dialogue with the community, and we’re trying to accomplish this through newsletters and the web site,” Vega said.
    “If we can keep lines of communication open, we can solve quite a few problems before they become chronic issues that cripple the process.”

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