Finding someone with a horror story about pulling a construction permit in Austin is about as difficult as finding a breakfast taco on East Seventh Street. You don’t have to go far.
Whether you want to build an entire structure or do a much less ambitious remodeling job, you’re going to wander into the city’s permitting maze, and with a little luck — or better yet, professional help — you’ll eventually find your way out. In an ideal world, a citizen ought to be able to fill out the paperwork, pay the fee and proceed with the project. The world is far from ideal, though — so much so that people make decent livings helping those who think they live in that ideal world navigate the real one.
For at least the past 30 years, one council candidate after another has run for office promising to simplify the city’s development code and permitting process. Some won, some lost, but not much changed.
Not only did the complicated process help some people make legitimate livings, it opened the door to temptation to making money illicitly.
In June, city inspector Edward Vigil, 42, was indicted on charges alleging he took bribes to push permits through the maze. The American-Statesman’s reporting on Vigil’s legal troubles set off a predictable round of official indignation, but soon after it was back to business as usual.
Now from members of the City Council comes a proposal that would allow permit applicants to pay a little extra to accelerate their paperwork.
To be blunt, council members should absorb the irony here. The proposal would basically institutionalize the illegal act ascribed to Vigil in the indictment returned in June.
You pay extra and your paperwork gets special treatment. The proposal is aimed at getting big projects processed more quickly. So your remodeling project might still be stuck in line. Details will be worked out after a study by the city manager.
It wouldn’t be the first time that government has generated revenue by engaging in enterprises that get ordinary citizens arrested. When street entrepreneurs sell you a long-odds chance for a buck or two for a shot of hitting a jackpot, it’s called running the numbers. When the state does it, it’s called the lottery. Well, at least you don’t have to find a bookie to buy a chance. You just walk into any convenience store.
Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole noted that developers who opt to pay more for an expedited review of their projects would pay for the extra help that would be required to provide the service.
As the American-Statesman’s Marty Toohey and Shonda Novak reported this week, the city isn’t meeting its own deadlines for reviewing projects. The wait for an initial review for a remodeling project had stretched to several weeks, though the city code states that such a review should take no more than two days.
City Manager Marc Ott has proposed hiring 23 new staffers to handle permit applications, but the city’s growth is increasing the backlog and the frustration of getting even the most simple projects processed.
Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison expressed concern about the acceleration surcharge.
Amazingly, no one on the council has spoken up for reviewing the city’s extensive set of regulations governing development and construction with an eye toward streamlining them. Mayor Lee Leffingwell often targets the permitting process in conversation, but the six council members usually don’t engage.
Anyone with even passing familiarity with how things work at City Hall understands that such an undertaking won’t be easy. Every rule has a constituency, but the building and development code has been amended more often than the Texas Constitution and with about as much clarity.
Horror stories and campaign promises are a testament to the need to change, clarify, simplify, overhaul or inject coherence into the city’s building regulations and restrictions. To date, however, change has largely been cosmetic and accomplished only with great difficulty.
Getting applicants to pay extra to grease the skids for their paperwork is easier.
Sleazier but easier.