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Baker's better permit system

It was a problem long-suffered and seemingly intractable. A St. Petersburg resident interested in making home improvements would seek a building permit from the city, then wait, and wait, and wait. The same for contractors who wanted to build something that would improve the city and increase the tax base. The city Development Services department seemed in no hurry to act.

Delay in obtaining building permits got so bad it became an issue in city elections earlier this year. After Mayor Rick Baker took office, he spent a work day in the Development Services department and saw the problem firsthand. Quietly, he and the department director, Julie Weston, initiated a fix.

Then Baker thought up a dramatic way to announce that permit delays were a thing of the past. He issued a statement that promises the city will meet new time limits for making a permit decision, otherwise Baker "will personally meet with you and our plan review staff to explain what happened and what we will do to provide better service." The goal is to allow no more than 12 working days for commercial permits, eight days for residential permits and five days for permit applications that were rejected and resubmitted.

In May, the city was unable to meet any of those goals. In October, it beat the time limit in all three categories. Permits for single-family homes took nearly 12 days to process in May, but a little over four days in October. That is impressive, but the way Baker got an important city department to improve its performance particularly deserves praise.

No one was fired, no new positions were added to the department and permitting officials even made do with an antiquated computer system. Weston studied the problem and found that her employees have the necessary skills but no one was keeping track of the time it took to complete the various steps a permit application must pass through. "We had a lot of (applications) sitting in piles," she said.

Weston assigned two employees to be routing technicians, who make sure applications don't sit too long on any one desk. A commercial permit, for example, has to be approved by specialists in the zoning, building, plumbing, electrical, fire and site work offices. She plots the movement of every permit.

The only drawback to speeding up the process would be if the city fails to strictly enforce city rules and regulations. Both Baker and Weston say that isn't going to happen. The new system will be challenged early next year when every city in Florida has to adapt to a new statewide development code. But that should be a temporary disruption.

Baker deserves credit for fixing a nagging problem that sooner or later frustrates nearly every property owner in the city. He did it by improving management practices and with little drama, except for his promise to personally resolve future permit problems.

The mayor is already known for his long work days and seemingly endless series of meetings. He must be confident that the new permitting system won't cause him to add another page to his daily appointments calendar.

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