With staffing cuts, cities try to speed permitting

A slight change in the way building plans are reviewed by two northern Nevada building departments has expedited the approval process, but other area building departments are having difficulty maintaining former levels of service after sweeping job cuts.

The City of Reno has cut the approval process from four or more weeks to about 10 days, says John Hester, the city's director of community development.

About a year ago the City of Reno started asking developers to submit up to six sets of plans to allow the six reviews required by the community development department to be undertaken simultaneously. Previously, plans were examined sequentially by the city's planning, engineering, structural, mechanical, electric and plumbing reviewers.

Hester says 96 percent of plans submitted in January were reviewed within 10 days at a time when the City of Reno's Community Development Department has shrunk from 120 employees in 2007 to just 40 today.

"The change in the process has made a big, big difference," Hester says. "Plans go through so much faster when they submit six sets, so that is what everybody does now. People are willing to pay for another few sets of blueprints instead of waiting.

"It has worked really well for us," Hester says. "It has made our customers happy, and that is a big benefit."

Washoe County last March asked developers to submit multiple plan sets to decrease review times. Chief Building Official Don Jeppson says wait times are four to five days for residential and up to two weeks on commercial projects.

Keeping service levels intact despite staff reductions Washoe County's Building Department has 13 employees, down from 36 in 2007 hasn't been a challenge for the department due to the decreased volume of permitting, Jeppson says. The staff also has taken a 20 percent pay cut in its reduced 32-hour work week.

"We are still offering next-day inspections and still servicing Incline Village," Jeppson says. "If we do get busier we do have the capacity by increasing hours without having to hire. We have built-in capacity."

Frank Lepori, president of the Nevada Chapter of Associated General Contractors, says the recession has focused the attention of building officials and construction executives alike.

"We believe everyone's perspective has become clearer in the last year when viewing a potential project and working as a team to get the project started," says Lepori.

In Carson City, Chief Building Official Kevin Gattis says approval times haven't dipped 10 business days for a dwelling and 15 for new commercial but if construction picks up the city's building department will struggle to keep pace. Budget cuts have thinned the department's staff to three, down 10 positions from its peak five years ago.

"We are not as busy as we were; however, we have a fraction of the staff," Gattis says. "We are still meeting turnaround times on plan review, which is a good thing, but that is not as guaranteed as it used to be."

The Carson City Building Department also asks for multiple sets of blueprints so that staff can review them concurrently and keep approval times down, Gattis says. The staff that is left works both on plan review and building inspection.

Gattis says an influx of plans and field inspections would require the department to either hire additional inspectors/ reviewers or farm out work to approved third-party companies.

The City of Sparks has asked for multiple blueprints for review for nearly a decade, says Neil Krutz, the city's community development director. But plans are taking longer to move through the system because of widespread job cuts. The city has just one plan reviewer left on staff as the department's numbers have fallen from a peak of 84 in 2007 to just 20 today. The City of Spark's building counter also is only open two days a week.

"We need the other three days to do the review work," Krutz says.

Back in the construction boom, the City of Sparks adhered to a performance standard of returning plans to developers either approved or with comments for revision within 15 days and often beat the deadline, Krutz says. Today, the building department returns plans in about a four- to six-week timeframe. And there used to be a building department official working full time at the building counter who could take applications, address minor issues and issue permits within 30 to 60 minutes; now, all work goes into the queue until it can be addressed in the order submitted.

"We simply don't have the staff to do that anymore," Krutz says. "Our ability to turn little stuff around has really fallen by the wayside. It is a shame, but it's a sign of the times."

Lepori says contractors understand the challenges presented by the reduced hours and staff cuts.

"The new schedule has its challenges to say the least, but we would rather have the cities and county opened a few days a week and try to get in line with the budget than stay open every day and spend money that is not in the budget, ultimately costing taxpayers more dollars," he says. "The public and private sectors need to work together to get through the economic struggles of today."


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