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  • | 10:18 a.m. November 22, 2013
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There are a multitude of reasons permitting speeds have recently improved in Pasco County, but one of the biggest comes down to simple pain avoidance. For two years Tim Moore, Pasco County's chief building official, and his staff have listened as the construction industry groused over problems with the permitting system and its glacial speed. Moore describes those monthly contractors' roundtable meetings as “a bloodletting.”

The meetings were one way Pasco carried out a directive from then County Administrator John Gallagher and now current County Administrator Michele Baker: Speed up the permitting process without vastly increasing costs.

To meet that directive, the department looked at successful permitting systems in Orlando and Pinellas County and combined those ideas with suggestions from the industry meetings and internal discussions to form a plan.

Two years later, the building department rolled out some big changes to fix those problems.

So far, the changes have worked. The county's department reduced the wait for its most common residential permitting from 30 days or more to just seven. Other permits that used to take months can be completed in weeks or in some case just a few hours if you're willing to go into the office.

In practical terms, the department made two big changes modeled after what it observed in other places. It expanded its online permitting system for simple maintenance (roofing, water heater change-outs and air conditioning) permits and added an assembly-line style walk-through permitting system at its central office in Port Richey.

“We knew to make this happen without adding staff or money to the program we had to reduce the outer offices,” Moore says. “We used to have site development technicians and building plans examiners at two other outer offices. We pulled them back to the main office. Right now, they're just barebones offices that handle permitting intake and issue permits.”

The small number of personnel at the satellite offices was part of the problem, Moore says, with services at those offices limited when employees were out sick, on vacation or at education programs. Now those offices send permit applications to the main office.

The additional staff in the central office gives the department the workforce needed to offer walkthrough permitting. A builder who shows up with the proper paperwork can visit a department employee assigned to each stage of the permit-review process (structural, building, mechanical or fire reviews), one right after the other.

The department also created a gatekeeper position to make sure builders have all the permitting documents required before starting the walk-through process and redirecting customers needing other services, such as parks and recreation passes.

To contractors like Larry Daly, owner of Construction Management Services in Port Richey, this can equate to getting a permit the same day.

“For us this means that our customers don't get mad at us because it doesn't take that long to get a permit,” says Daly. “We used to tell them not to get in too much of a hurry, because Pasco County wasn't business-friendly.”

Creative Contractors Inc. has also noticed the changes. Joshua Bomstein, vice president of the Clearwater-based contractor, says the permitting system appears to be running much smoother as his company goes through the approvals needed to build a medical office building in Trinity.
“I think they knew they had to improve,” he says “There were a lot of negative impressions in the marketplace. The new system is much more organized and definitely streamlined.”

Business officials also give a sizable portion of the credit for the improvements to Baker. According John Hagen, Pasco Economic Development Council's president and CEO, she was tasked with making the county's departments more business-friendly when she was chief assistant county administrator and continued those efforts after she was promoted.

“What this took was somebody with authority to change things,” Hagen says. “Initially there was a lot of suspicion. But when John Gallagher retired, and Michelle came in and continued the process of changing things that gave it the credibility to accelerate what had already been happening.”

Moore says right now the changes are costing the county more money primarily because of needed overtime, but that the improvements were important to the economic activity in the county. The changes have also attracted the attention of Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa, which are both seeking to improve their own permitting processes. It also made those Contractors' Roundtable meetings a whole lot easier.

 

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