New Portland building permit process goes to City Council

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PORTLAND — Reorganized staff, new hires and new software are expected to bring faster approvals for the majority of building permit applications.

“It is really going to benefit the homeowner who has been frustrated with the city,” City Manager Jon Jennings said Feb. 12 about ordinance revisions that will be considered  Wednesday as a first read by the City Council.

If approved, the new permitting and inspections department would be supervised by city Planning & Urban Development Director Jeff Levine, and would include three “permit techs” who Jennings expects will be able to sometimes make on-the-spot decisions about smaller residential permit applications.

“These permit techs are in some ways a case manager,” Jennings said. “They are at a much higher level than what we have now.”

The staffing changes and technological improvements to speed data flow and eliminate the need to re-enter application information are expected to cost almost $581,000, according to a report written last October by Jennings’s chief of staff, Julie Sullivan.

The positions and upgrades will be funded by a 1.6 percent fee on permit applications – a 0.5 percent increase – for projects estimated to cost more than $1,000.

Jennings said the increase is comparable to what is charged in surrounding communities. South Portland charges $15 per $1,000 for building permits.

“What we thought, quite frankly, was we have been significantly charging less than our neighboring city,” he said. “We need to have a larger staff and the permits can be more complicated at times. If you want a modernized, updated system, you have to pay for it.”

The payback for larger scale development will come in a more efficient process that saves time and provides more certainty to developers, Jennings said. He estimated 60 percent of permits could be approved immediately or within days, provided the applications are complete.

“It depends on the size of the job and the scope, but I don’t think any person who comes for a building permit for a deck on the back of their house should wait for months. That should be days,” he said.

He also said he did not want the improvements to be funded by increases in the property tax rate, now at $20.63 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The new department may also eventually incorporate operations at the new Housing Safety Office led by Art Howe III. Jennings, however agreed with Sullivan’s assessment that the housing office must be fully established before any shift is made.

Sullivan’s report was created after she interviewed about 40 people, including city staffers, public officials in neighboring communities, and developers.

The push to improve customer service and municipal information technology were goals Jennings said he has had from the outset of his appointment as city manager last July.

“Technology is one of the key components of success, and a huge component of customer service,” he said, adding that he wants the application processes to be completed online as often as possible so applicants do not have to come to City Hall.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall, 389 Congress St.