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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 8 years ago

Rebuilding a Reputation

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Collier County's permitting process has earned the area a reputation as one of the worst for businesses. Two former private-sector executives are determined to change that.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

James French rolls out a 6-foot length of butcher paper on a conference table, full of sticky notes and marked up in different colored pens.
It's the result of months of self-analysis by Collier County government staff. Each step that a builder or developer must take to get a building permit in Collier County is illustrated in painstaking detail.
Literally.
French says a builder used to take 258 footsteps to obtain a building permit, walking from one window to another. A spider chart of zigzag lines illustrates his point. French says that's now been cut to 60 steps. And pretty soon, builders will be able to get permits with zero steps by applying online.
A certified mechanic and Naples native who once ran Sears auto service centers, French has a title only a bureaucrat could love: Collier County's director of operations for the growth management division, planning and regulation department. That's a fancy way of saying he's the guy who gives the green or red light to build.
But if French has any bureaucratic bone in his body, he doesn't show it. He says he's determined to turn Collier County's building department into a model of efficiency and ease for builders. It's a radical departure from years past, when Collier County made every effort to stop new construction.
“I'm very pleased with what they're doing,” says Michael Rosen, chairman of the Collier Building Industry Association's developer council and a consultant to homebuilders and developers. The council has worked closely with county government to identify duplicative and unnecessary regulations.

“They're making great strides forward,” says Rosen, who credits County Manager Leo Ochs with setting the new pro-business tone. “Their attitude has changed, and that is really a key element in getting these things accomplished.”

Clearly, the economy has taken a toll on the public sector, too. “If we don't sell building permits, we're out of business,” says French, whose agency now counts 185 employees, down from 300 during the peak years.

Taking a cue from business, French's department offers builders a “money back” guarantee. For example, if a single-family home permit takes longer than five business days, Collier County will refund half the permit fee.

Recalcitrant employees who don't get with the customer-service program get the “hard-core speech” from Nick Casalanguida, the deputy director of the growth management division. A former competitive body builder and health-club owner, Casalanguida cuts an imposing figure. “You've got jobs; you get paid,” he warns uncooperative employees. “The people coming here are your neighbors,” he tells them.

Casalanguida says he's also quick to praise employees when they do a good job helping customers. He's spruced up the office with colorful photography and yellow and teal colors to make it a more pleasant working environment.

Before settling in Naples, Casalanguida also owned a civil engineering firm in Massachusetts. He got a rude awakening in Collier County bureaucracy four years ago when he applied for a fence permit and was handed seven pages of incomprehensible forms to fill out. Now, Casalanguida says the forms have been simplified and soon applicants will be able to view videos on YouTube with instructions on how to fill them out.

But Casalanguida also knows that engineers, architects and builders wrongly blame bureaucrats when they don't get their own work done in time. For example, the elders of a Naples church recently complained to their county commissioner when site development work for an expansion took a year to complete. Casalanguida then showed the elders that his department only had the paperwork for 67 days and the engineering firm they had hired didn't submit an application for six months. The engineers had blamed government employees when it was their own fault. “My job is to make sure they never use us as an excuse,” says Casalanguida.

That's why the building department now posts the progress of each permit application online. Besides helping them track their own progress, Casalanguida says building owners can now see for themselves whether the engineers and builders they hired are submitting the paperwork in a timely manner. In addition, builders can't resubmit faulty paperwork more than twice without a project's owner present.

“We run this business like we own it,” French says. A Naples native, he takes it as a personal affront when new arrivals to the area complain about his department. “I've got skin in the game,” he says.

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