Pensacola working to improve permitting, inspection as new builders survey shows concerns

Madison Arnold Pensacola News JournalPublished 6:36 AM EDT Aug 26, 2020The city of Pensacola's permitting and

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The city of Pensacola's permitting and inspections process could stand to improve its communications with applicants, efficiency and customer service, according to a new survey of builders.

The Downtown Improvement Board on Tuesday morning heard the results of its builders survey, which received just over 100 responses from builders, mostly in the contractor category. It covered questions regarding the city's permitting and inspection process on topics like project timelines and costs while working in Pensacola.

The DIB issued the survey after downtown stakeholders began asking for help navigating the processes and lodging complaints. Because permitting and inspections are needed for everything from a new business to improvements on an existing home, the processes affect a wide range of people, from a single homeowner from a large developer.

"The point is we're happy to receive these (responses). We know there's issues. I've actually had friends of mine who are builders recently come to me and express several concerns, which were mirrored in this survey," said Keith Wilkins, city administrator, who spoke to the board.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, city staff were already working on implementing a new electronic submittal system, the same one as Escambia County's system. Once City Hall closed to the public, the city decided to go fully online.

"Although the pandemic was not the reason for the shift to an electronic system, it forced us to rush the electronic plan review aspect and made it mandatory for all permits to be issued online," said Jonathan Bilby, building official, in a statement.

Other measures undertaken by the city to help improve inspection services include halting inspections of occupied buildings during the pandemic and moving to virtual inspections with videos or photos of systems used this spring. Zoning review was also moved under Planning Services last year.

Wilkins told the board that now the city is facing slowdowns with employees working from home.

"The point is, we're evaluating the results and it's already begun and we're happy to have those results and make changes because that's what we need to do," Wilkins said.

Steven Shelley, partner at East Hill Building and Design, said he's been working with the city on permitting and inspections for 20 years. Previously, he had to bring physical copies of his plans into city offices as well as talk with inspectors and pay with permitting fees.

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"Switching it to the same system as what the county uses is outstanding. And it takes people a while to get used to things. We all know that," Shelley said. "Without a doubt, doing that all online is a lot easier." 

He said although it's true for other entities, he would like to see more people in permitting and inspecting roles to speed up the processes.

Lissa Dees, DIB executive director, suggested putting the survey on next month's agenda again to discuss next steps for helping improve the system, such as how to communicate improvements back to builders or doing another survey after the city's changes to show if there's improvement.

"The respondants may be more comfortable giving feedback to an unrelated third party like the DIB and so maybe the feedback is a little more direct and pointed than it would be if the building department themselves submitted the survey," said Michael Carro, board chair. "We all want the same thing. That's what we have to remember is we are here to continue to improve the district and our community."

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