Tampa to make getting building permits faster, easier and trackable online

Published Jan. 12, 2012

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn often says Tampa's permitting system ought to be modern enough to let a builder track a permit on a smartphone.

Now City Hall is moving in that direction.

City officials said Wednesday they will buy a fully automated electronic permitting system from Accela Automation, a company based near San Francisco that provides web- and cloud-based software applications to government agencies.

The system will replace an inefficient patchwork of old software and is designed to provide businesses, homeowners and contractors with online access to permitting and licensing information.

The result, Buckhorn said, should be "quicker permits, less hassle and more money saved in lost time."

"This software will certainly make us far more user-friendly, whether it's someone adding onto their house or someone building an office tower," Buckhorn said. "Any builder who deals with the city on a regular basis knows how archaic the system is. This will be a huge improvement."

Accela Citizen Access, part of the software package, will allow businesses to apply and pay for permits, submit construction plans electronically, schedule inspections, check the status of a permit or inspection, and print an approved permit online any time, officials said.

Residents and businesses also will be able to look at maps and access permitting services from devices such as iPhones and iPads.

The software is expected to cost an estimated $2.7 million the first year, and the City Council will likely vote on its purchase later this month, officials said.

Most of the money for the system will come from the city's Construction Services Enhancement Fund, which was created a decade or more ago at the request of builders and developers.

The construction industry agreed to slight increases in permit fees in exchange for some of the money going to a special fund that has been used to buy better computers and software needed to review their applications.

As a result, "most of this is being paid for by the industry that we regulate," said Thomas Snelling, the city's acting growth management and development services director.

Once purchased, the system will likely be available to users in three or four months, he said.

For companies with construction loans, time is money. So they will welcome anything that expedites permitting.

"This has been something that the Tampa Bay Builders Association has been advocating for years," said Jennifer Doerfel, the group's executive vice president. "Gone will be the days of having to print out pages and pages and pages of building plans and make an appointment and go down and pay for parking" to apply for a permit.

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Since taking office in April, Buckhorn has talked of "changing Tampa's economic DNA" to foster redevelopment, boost the local economy and make Tampa more appealing to bright young professionals.

To do that, last summer he appointed an economic competitiveness committee to study ways to change the city's reputation as a tough place to get a rezoning or a building permit.

The committee — 17 lawyers, engineers, developers, builders, plus a City Council member and a neighborhood representative — began meeting in early July.

It is expected to continue its work through at least the end of this month. But it is close to recommending changes in three areas, including the permitting upgrade announced Wednesday:

• Codes and ordinances: In a draft report, the committee describes the city's existing process as "confusing, unpredictable, time-consuming and costly for anyone trying to do business in the city." It is moving to recommend taking development regulations that are now scattered throughout the city's codes, eliminating unnecessary ones, and putting them in one unified code.

• Process and technology: Along with the new online permitting system, this is expected to include establishing a single authority over interpretations of the code and creating a more "customer-driven culture."

• Staff and organization: The committee is recommending bringing city staffers who work on different aspects of development review into one department and creating an "ombudsman" position to help facilitate complex projects.

Richard Danielson can be reached at, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.