With new leadership in place and steps being taken to enhance both its online and on-site customer portals, City of Richmond officials say they’re making steady progress toward improving the city’s long-beleaguered permits and inspections office.
At the same time, however, several customers and industry observers who have called on or regularly work with the office maintain that it still has a long way to go. Some contend that operations have gotten worse rather than better.
While they acknowledge that they have a lot of work left to be done, Sharon Ebert and Jason Carangelo, who were brought on this year to oversee the office as the city’s new supervising administrator and building commissioner, respectively, said they’re implementing strategies that are moving it in the right direction.
“We’re taking some steps to try to get to where we know we want to go to,” Ebert said in an interview with BizSense earlier this month – citing such things as staffing adjustments and recent additions to the city’s EnerGov system for submitting and reviewing permits and plans online.
“There’s a series of things that we’re going to be systematically rolling out over the next several weeks and months to try to turn this around,” Ebert said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to happen by the end of the year, because I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. But we are keenly aware of what we need to do to turn the ship in the right direction.”
Their game plan appears to be finding initial favor with some builders and developers, a group of whom met with Ebert and Carangelo this week to discuss their concerns and suggested remedies.
While customers as recently as this month have reported hours-long waits and other frustrations, some to City Council members and others to BizSense, Ebert gave the group an optimistic view of the road ahead, said Danna Markland, CEO of the Home Building Association of Richmond.
“They were extremely encouraged by Sharon’s commitment to implementing new strategies, which is a breath of fresh air,” said Markland, who helped coordinated the meeting that was held Wednesday.
“I think the level of attention that she is paying to these issues is different than what we’ve seen,” Markland said. “But, of course, only time will tell.”
Markland stressed that the meeting, which also was attended by Mayor Levar Stoney and involved a regional group of builders and developers looking to invest in the city, was needed because of problems that continue to persist, despite steps that have been taken so far.
“They’re no better,” she said. “If anything, they are worse. But what Sharon outlined as her priorities and her approach to this is a sign that there could be some productive strategies in place that actually will address these. A large part of that will be empowering and enabling their people to do so.”
‘Trying to get through the backlog’
Ebert, who started with the city in March as deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, said steps taken so far include the recent launch of the first of seven permitting applications planned for Energov, which the city has been rolling out slowly since it awarded a $1.63 million contract for the system in 2012.
Ebert said this latest update allows for online processing of permit applications related to residential construction, such as for residential electrical, mechanical, plumbing, plan of development and zoning certifications.
“We haven’t gotten to the big ones yet,” Ebert said, referring to commercial building permits specifically. “But we also are trying to get through the backlog.”
Other moves have been made in the office’s staffing, with new hires made, temps added and several positions reallocated to meet demand in different areas.
As Ebert put it: “Trying to reallocate some of our resources from vacancies that we have someplace else. Instead of just backfilling those vacancies, reclassifying, moving them over to where we know we need people, whether it’s customer service people, permit techs. Now we’re looking at plan reviewers and inspectors.
“We have some people who are going to be retiring this month under the city’s voluntary retirement plan, so we have some opportunities to get new people in there,” she said. “The whole idea is to reshuffle management.”
Carangelo, who started as building commissioner over the summer, said issues with management – specifically a lack of communication and low morale – were some of the challenges he assessed when he arrived after 13 years in a similar role with the City of Savannah in Georgia.
A registered architect, Carangelo said his time thus far has been spent working with staff to address those issues, along with improving processing flows, workload and customer service. But he said improving communication and morale has been a priority.
“Communication, that was lacking,” Carangelo said. “I think over the years some leadership was missing, it was falling short, and people were doing a lot of things in a vacuum, so to speak.”
Ebert said the office also is working to improve communication with customers, primarily in making expectations clear.
“Jason and I have realized there is an overall need to communicate clearly with our customers what the process is, to make sure that you can go on our website and know what it is to just add on a deck to your house or do a minor renovation to an existing commercial space, versus a much more complicated project.
“I think this goes to the root cause of why so many people come in and they don’t understand why (there’s a back and forth),” Ebert said.
Taking up the mantle
Carangelo and Ebert join the fray years into an ongoing effort to address operations in the office, formally known as the city’s building inspections and permitting bureau.
Mayor Stoney, responding to complaints from developers that the city’s review process had been slowing down their projects, announced in late 2017 changes aimed at improving operations in the office. That included adjusted office hours in accordance with peak demand times, renovations to the office, validated parking and emailed permits to reduce wait times.
The moves appeared to have an effect, as about three months later, the office reported that customer volume had risen and staff vacancies were down, with nearly twice as many visitors over two days in February 2018 than its previous average.
But by that August, just over a year ago, the city had parted ways with its then-building commissioner, Doug Murrow, who had served in that role over seven years. The nature of Murrow’s departure was not made clear, and Ray Abbasi, the city’s operations manager, oversaw the office as interim commissioner until Carangelo was hired in July.
The permit center has since undergone renovations, changing what had commonly been referred to as Room 110 to Room 108, where its entrance and waiting room are now located.
The office also has since received an internal audit that found a dozen issues that the city auditor said need improvement. Released in August, four of those findings involved elevator inspections, ranging from incomplete inventory data to unbilled fees over three years that resulted in $1 million in lost or delayed revenue.
Volume on the rise
The audit was for calendar year 2018, during which time the office conducted 45,577 inspections and issued 13,150 permits, according to the report.
In fiscal year 2018, the 12-month period that ended June 30 of that year, the office conducted 45,524 inspections and awarded 16,069 permits. Those numbers held steady in FY19, with 44,119 inspections and 15,963 permits, according to data provided by the city.
Those totals show an increase in overall inspections and a slight decrease in permits compared to FY17, when the bureau conducted 39,805 inspections and awarded 14,267 permits, up from 35,837 inspections and 12,125 permits in FY16.
As of Oct. 29, inspections conducted so far in FY20 were up to 15,495, while permits issued have totaled 5,839.
Ebert and Carangelo said the number of permits, construction documents needing review and work volume overall has doubled since 2017. Carangelo said the office currently averages over 300 applications per day and just under 100 visitors per day, with a staff of about 90, with 40 or so in code enforcement and the rest assigned to other areas.
“That’s why we’re trying to reallocate resources,” Ebert said. “Up until this date, it’s just been, ‘We asked for resources and we didn’t get the resources we want through the budget process.’ That’s not an answer in my book. The answer is, if I have a bottom line I have to stick to, how do I reallocate resources.”
More moves to come
Ebert and Carangelo said they want the industry to know the steps they’ve taken so far and that they plan to take more. While she noted the number of cranes currently vertical in the city, Ebert said more needs to be done to make sure development isn’t slowed by the process.
“I’ve only been here six months, but I do see the lack of communication and coordination between reviewers and what the public can expect when they submit something that is complicated. It feels like it goes into a black hole, and that should never be the case,” Ebert said.
“We’re trying to figure out how do we make it very clear, and fast-track the things that are easy, because you shouldn’t have to wait 30 days to get a permit to add a deck to your house. These are simple things that shouldn’t take more than 24, 48 hours tops; not 30 days-plus. That’s where I’m extremely frustrated.”