At a BOCC March 31 workshop, Mayor Michelle Coldiron’s announcement at the start of the proceedings gave a hint about the frustrations that staff and the public have had about Monroe County’s building permit review process.
“I’m going to caution you all,” she said. “I love our staff. I know the commissioners here appreciate how hard our staff works, that they’re spread thin. This meeting is not going to be a bash of our staff … and I will use my gavel.”
But in the end, the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners — along with staff and some industry professionals who attended the workshop — discussed solutions to help the county’s permit-review process, which is overseen by the building and planning/environmental departments, run more smoothly.
The solutions include new software, eliminating the COVID-era drop box, rehiring staff who were laid off during COVID and regular meetings between officials and the public.
Christine Hurley, assistant county administrator who oversees the county’s building and planning/environmental departments, gave a presentation to outline current permit-review procedures.
She said permit applications are currently received on paper and routed physically to multiple stops, extending the time that they are typically reviewed in a first round to 35 days. Consequently, the county is sitting on a backlog of 1,100 incomplete permit applications.
“It’s not a pretty sight behind the doors, where all these things are sitting,” she said.
In addition, due to COVID restrictions, a dropbox was instituted for the public to hand in their applications, as opposed to the building department’s front desk. Hurley said that after an application is put in the dropbox, it isn’t added into the computer system for one or two weeks.
The staff anticipates that the elimination of the dropbox and the reopening of in-person permitting services on April 12 will make the application-intake process faster. But personnel also highly recommend a new software package for office computers, so applications can be seen by departments simultaneously rather than having to wait for a physical routing of hard copy.
Per Hurley’s presentation, the software implementation will cost $625,000 during 2021, but more payments over the following four years will bring the total cost to over $1 million.
“It’s going to be expensive. But it’s like all new things, particularly if they occur on computers,” Commissioner David Rice said. “I think that will be a bigger solution than any single issue we could choose.”
Hurley also said COVID-inspired budget cuts in October 2020 led to 11.5 building positions and 6.5 planning/environmental positions being axed. Meanwhile, total permit intake went up 4 percent from Oct. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021.
The building department staff recommended rehiring customer service reps, floodplain inspectors and plan examiners, while the planning/environmental department needs to rehire senior environmental planners.
Hurley also broached the idea of completely new staff: an inspector just for unlicensed contractors and a “permit ombudsman” for Key Largo and Marathon “when designers and contractors get to the end of their wits,” she said.
But planning/environmental department staff also wanted the public to understand that an old-fashioned routing system isn’t the only problem. The county is subject to a lot of red tape due to it being the home of eight endangered species. If a property owner has one of those species potentially making its home on their parcel, then the permit review becomes more complicated. At one point, staff screened a map with a dizzying collage of multicolored squares detailing the endangered species-related workflow of permit review.
“This was eye-opening in terms of all the additional hoops we have to jump through, due to the federal Endangered Species Act,” said Coldiron.
Rudy Krause of Rudy Krause Construction was one of the industry attendees.
“When a job is held three to four weeks (for permit review), it’s hard for a smaller contractor to hold onto employees,” he said, suggesting that the county hold more building department meetings every few months to discuss problems, as done in the past.
“The most frustrated people are the customer service reps on the front line,” said Hurley. “Imagine how they feel every day coming into that. We’ve lost two people in Stock Island last week.”
“I’m going to propose bringing a resolution forward for our next commission meeting, to put together an advisory committee of the industry and the private sector and residents to advise us,” said Commissioner Craig Cates. “This is not going to end today. This is the beginning.”