Tampa's land-use website for citizens, businesses still balky

Published March 23, 2014

TAMPA — Two of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's top priorities are for City Hall to be tech-savvy and user-friendly for business.

But when the city rolled out the first phase of a new online planning portal in December, it ran into problems on both fronts. Now some of the very people Buckhorn wants to impress are exasperated instead.

"I mean, honestly, I am all for technology," said Andrea Zelman, a Tampa land-use lawyer. As a member of Buckhorn's Economic Competitiveness Committee, Zelman endorsed the idea of putting as many city services online as possible.

But when she tried to use the new portal — — it couldn't find addresses she knows are inside city limits.

"The more that's online, the better," Zelman said, "but what shocked me was how incredibly difficult this one is to use, and in some instances it's just not working."

In early 2012, Buckhorn said the city would pay $2.7 million for a fully automated permitting system from Accela, a company based near San Francisco that provides web- and cloud-based software applications to government agencies.

The goal was to replace an inefficient patchwork of old software, provide online access to permitting and, Buckhorn said, deliver "less hassle and more money saved in lost time."

But land-use professionals have told the city they've gotten just the opposite. One planning consultant said he and a client spent three days trying to navigate the system. After trying to access the site via Google Chrome and getting numerous error messages, another said he would rather fill out and turn in applications by hand.

"There are some growing pains," said Thomas Snelling, the city's director of planning and development.

The city originally aimed to have all of Accela Citizen Access online by January. Now officials are aiming for July. The first phase that went live in December did not include building permits, but did offer access to applications for less-complicated functions like rezonings, changes of address or splitting a parcel in two.

Since then, the city has gotten complaints mainly in two areas.

First, the system can't find thousands of Tampa addresses. The city imported about 300,000 addresses from perhaps five different files into a new database. But because some of those old address files were incomplete or included ambiguous data, the new system could not match about 18,000 addresses to particular parcels. To fix it, city employees have been updating those files at a rate of 400 to 500 a day.

Second, the new portal is not compatible with some web browsers. For now, officials say the new system supports Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 or 9; Firefox 13; Safari 5; and Google Chrome 19.

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Those are the browsers Accela has "definitively tested" to confirm they work, said Russell Haupert, City Hall's director of technology and innovation and chief information officer.

"There's a tendency to make it sound like, 'If you don't have this, nothing works,' and that's not really the case," he said. "That is not to say that other versions will not work." In general, older versions will work, though they might not look the same, and something as out of date and little-used as Explorer 5 might not work at all.

And there is a way — by using the compatibility view setting — people can use Accela Citizens Access even if they have a version of Internet Explorer that's not on the list (see box below).

"These are common issues that any web-based application has to deal with," Haupert said. "At any point in time when you start developing an application, you make the best cut that you can. . . . I think for the development point that they did this, they addressed it as well as they could, and I think that — I hate to say it in that way, but I think some degree of browser incompatibility is expected, and I think they understand that they have to work harder to address browser issues out of the box and their subsequent versions are getting better at that."

City officials said they are testing a new version of Accela's system that enhances browser compatibility. That could go into use in about two weeks.

Tampa officials also are working with Accela to get the portal running smoothly before rolling out more complicated permitting functions. As later phases come online, the city plans to offer training workshops for users.

Buckhorn, not known for patience when it comes to big goals, said Accela's implementation "took longer than I had anticipated, longer than I had hoped for."

"We have had some issues with the contractor," he said. "I think we have fixed the problem, but it was clear for a period of time that they had not sent their A-team in."

Haupert said that when the city brought issues to Accela's attention, the company could have helped the city address them more quickly.

As a result, Buckhorn said, "we have read them the riot act and are expecting them to produce as they promised." The problems will not increase the project's cost, officials say.

In response to Buckhorn's comments, Accela spokeswoman Erica Harvill said her company "has a long history of working with government agencies to help automate and streamline core civic processes."

"Each implementation is unique, based on technology requirements and agency needs, and our mission is to help them achieve their goals," Harvill said in an email. "We fully support the mayor's vision for Tampa's suite of online services and are working diligently with staff to make this a reality."

Buckhorn is not backing off his ambition to make City Hall modern enough for a builder to track a permit on a smartphone.

"When we're all said and done," he vows, "it will be."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403.