City of Spokane Valley staff members hosted a developers forum Thursday to talk about changes to the permit system and their commitment to offering excellent customer service. They faced a crowd of about 40 developers, real estate agents and property owners that offered a few suggestions and even cracked some jokes about building a drive-through window for permits.
Community Development Director John Hohman said he wants his staff to be as efficient as possible and offer the best customer service in the region. However, that doesn’t mean his staff will “rubber stamp” anything, Hohman said. He asked for a frank discussion on how the city could do its job better. “This isn’t business as usual,” he said.
Among the improvements being worked on is more training for permit center counter staff so developers get the same answers to their questions instead of getting different answers to the same question from different staff members. “I feel that’s extremely important,” Hohman said. “We have to have a clear, concise and accurate answer every time.”
The city is working to install new permit software that will allow better tracking of permit requests and will allow the public to access some of the information online. There is also a push to expand express permitting for a larger number of things, including signs and small residential projects. “It works best for people who do a lot of permitting with us,” said building official Mary Kate McGee. “It’s not suitable for all projects.”
John Miller, president of Divcon, suggested doing away with the required pre-application meeting in some cases and use a checklist instead. Hohman said the pre-application meeting dates back to when building was booming and staff was scrambling to keep up with all the permit applications coming in the door. He agreed that in some cases it could be optional. “There are a lot of repeat customers out there,” he said. “A lot of you deal with us day in and day out.”
“We’re still looking for a half-hour permit for a 10-story building,” Miller joked.
Todd Whipple of Whipple Consulting said the city needs to be poised to add more staff when the economy picks up so the quick turnaround times don’t suffer. “Things are great now,” he said.
Bob Boyle of Hanson Industries suggested having the ability for permit applicants to log into the new software system and check and see if an outside agency is holding up a permit by not reviewing it fast enough. “Believe me, the applicant will be more than happy to call them,” he said.
Hohman said he thought that would be part of the new software. City staff is already in talks with Spokane County to allow the city to issue sewer permits on its behalf to reduce wait times for permits, he said.
He emphasized that there will be times when “the code is the code” and staff won’t have flexibility. “It’s one thing to just sit here and talk,” he said. “Our actions will show how serious we are about this.”