Clark County permitting leans in

Sweeping process changes and training should relieve building permit center pinch points

Permitting article
VBJ File

Come January, homebuilders and remodelers should be seeing a new side of the Clark County Building Permit Center. The permit center has been engaged in a two-year overhaul with area builders to make tax lot permitting more efficient, effective and cut the processing time by more than half. Right now, said Building Permit Center Manager Mike Curtis, the 13-person team has a six- to 10-week backlog on permit applications.

And if there is talk of an economic downturn to ease the burden, Curtis hasn’t seen it yet.

“As far as the numbers go for the month of October we had 1,854 customers through our door as compared to 1,606 in October of 2018,” he said in an email. “And for the month of November we had 1,383 customers through our door as compared to 1,356 in November of 2018.”

An evaluation of permit center operations conducted by management consultants Citygate Associates was detailed in a March 2018 report that pointed to staff communication and trust issues; County Councilors intervening on the part of builders; a permitting process that was neither predictable, consistent or timely; and physical space that hindered operations rather than facilitated them.

The Citygate report spoke of staffing shortage and training issues, stating, “The current situation with the permit center is a ‘vicious cycle’ where staff are not able to meet expectations, pressure increases, staff leave, new staff are hired who have limited experience and training, they are not able to meet expectations, pressure increases, staff leave, etc.”

More than a year later, the permit center is short staffed, with 12 people under Curtis and four unfilled FTEs. But there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Implementation of Citygate’s strategic recommendations required that Community Development convene a Functional Oversight Team, working collaboratively to identify and mitigate impediments to timely and successful permit applications and plan reviews. The FOT includes more than a dozen county staff, mostly from Community Development but also from the Auditor’s Office, Public Works and the Councilors’ Office. On the building side, there are representatives from Doriot Construction, Quail Homes, SGA Engineering, New Tradition Homes, Pacific Lifestyle Homes, Building Industry Association and Southwest Washington Contractors Association.

To improve customer service, Clark County is implementing a new permit application process beginning in 2020. The process is being soft-launched through the month of December. The permit center will be closed for staff training and to catch up on permit applications Dec. 26 through Dec. 31, reopening on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

The most noticeable change after Jan. 1 is that permit application packets for new construction will need to be complete and have all the required information prior to being accepted by permit center staff. Incomplete application packets will not be accepted. A list of required application information based on application type will be available on the county website.

Community Development Director Mitch Nickolds said people walking in the door of the permit center will now be met and served by the most senior employees, those with “institutional knowledge” and clear direction.

“When you walk in the door, you’ll communicate with someone with great decision-making support, and there is a low probability that you’ll be talking with someone who has only been here for a few weeks,” Nickolds said. “We’ll have our best, most qualified people front and center, giving high value information at the right time.”

The cornerstone of the new system will be a comprehensive and well-defined checklist of the application process, including examples of successfully completed forms for each step of the way and staff assigned to keep it updated and distributed. The Citygate report identified this as a “best practice.” The checklist was not available by press time but expected to be released to the public in December and posted on the county website.

Community Development will do away with a LEAN building permit application process for new home construction on parcels in a recorded urban or rural subdivision with an approved stormwater design. The whole process, including single-home tax lots, will now be considered lean, said Curtis. Prior, tax lots were the biggest drag on the system.

“This puts the applicant back in control of the process,” Nickolds said. He added, “We can eliminate all these unknowns (so the builders can) set their customers up for success. We don’t want to put them at a distinct disadvantage. It creates a lot of frustration, frustrated applicants and customers, and our staff gets caught in the crossfire.”

The permit center will develop the new process with a few builders who are walking their projects through it with staff during this month’s soft launch. The permit center and the builders are partnering to work the steps of the new checklist and crystallize the details of the training staff members will receive during the closure at the end of December.

Nickolds has confidence the process will feel drastically different on both sides of the counter.

“The quality of interaction is changing most dramatically. There will be more institutional knowledge about this process, and the builders will be having highly valuable conversations (with permit center staff) to get them on the right track,” he said. “You’ve asked the good questions, been given the good answers and everything acts more like the lean process.”

Look in January’s Design and Construction Focus Section for an update from the building community on how the process is going.

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