Austin city officials declared an end Wednesday to a paperwork backlog that has added weeks or months to the wait time for people seeking permission to start home-improvement projects, such as a new sunroom or bathroom remodel.
The backlog of building permits, which had drawn the ire of residents and City Council members, was cleared over the past month by a 13-member “strike team” of city staffers, according to a news release. Those staffers gave 650 lingering permits an initial review — essentially, the key go-ahead.
“This accomplishment will propel us forward toward improving productivity and customer service,” City Manager Marc Ott said in the release, which was sent late Wednesday afternoon.
The release does not state how long those filing new applications can expect to wait. During the backlog, some permits that city code states should be issued in two days took eight weeks. Officials in the planning office did not respond late Wednesday afternoon to a request for additional details.
Council Member Chris Riley, who was pushing for a faster permit turnover after hearing numerous complaints, said those complaints have dropped off considerably.
“There’s still a lot of work to do to improve the process — especially in regard to (technology) issues — but the lag time on permits has been significantly reduced,” Riley said.
The council in February approved money for additional staffing for the development review office, but it wasn’t clear Wednesday if those positions have been filled yet.
To some who have been dealing with the city’s permitting process in recent years, the news seemed too good to be true. John Mitchell, an electrical contractor, said the city remains sluggish at giving the final go-ahead to projects, even if the key thumbs-up is being handled more quickly. For instance, he said, it still takes more than a week for the city to issue a standard electric permit, which is one of several required approvals for many projects.
“I just cannot for the life of me figure out why it takes them so long,” Mitchell said, particularly since in many cases an applicant has already paid into an escrow account from which the city can deduct the fee. “And why in the world, in this day and age, do they make people fax an application over?”
Mitchell said people also must often wait between an hour and three hours in the city’s “express line” to drop off an application at the permitting office.
The Wednesday release stated the city is planning to make online payment possible in the near future.
Greg Guernsey, head of the city’s planning department, has said the permits began stacking up mainly because six of the city’s eight permit reviewers quit last year even as the real-estate industry rebounded, and the city is only now getting new reviewers fully trained. That explanation has not satisfied much of the city’s development community. Builders have wondered why the city was not able to better anticipate the departures and an uptick in construction many had predicted.