“The auditors are here.” It’s a phrase that can strike fear into the heart of a manager, executive or a taxpayer. That’s because the auditor is charged with exposing the truth and reality of what’s going on in a business, a corporation or on your income tax return. And so it is with government auditors. And often the truth is ugly. Reporters and opposition politicians relish the annual reports from the Auditor General, both federally and provincially. They can use the information to blister the government for all kinds of failures, omissions, waste and profligacy. And the Government often tries to defend itself or make an occasionally feeble attempt at a remedy. But when it’s a municipal audit, there really is no opposition to speak of to jump on those responsible. It’s all on us. City Council is responsible both for the mess and for pointing out the trouble spots. And for the clean up.
So let me start with the most recent report from the Office of the City Auditor and his review of the Building Permit and Inspection Services department. Ouch! It’s a scathing indictment of the policies, practices and operations of BPIS. Among the findings: misuse of overtime, huge backlogs, poor service delivery, inconsistent fees, no measurable targets, no prioritizing of tasks, operating beyond its mandate. It’s a long and troubling list.
I find the huge backlog of permits and the unreasonable delays in getting the process started very troubling. I also note the fact that the department has no measurable goals or targets to be able to determine if it’s performing well. And there is a lot of confusion about just what the department is supposed to be doing. These items alone demand drastic action from Council.
There are tens of thousands of open building permits in the current backlog. But construction continues. And because some of these backlogged permits date back to the construction boom of ten years ago, the construction is done, the buildings are occupied and the work is inaccessible. As a result, the BPIS have, in the words of the Auditor, “…exposed the City to significant risks.” In essence we have residential and commercial buildings under construction and / or finished that have NEVER had a building inspection.
At the end of 2012 the backlog stood at 61,493 open permits. By this past June, the number was down to around 42,000. At this rate it’ll be 2016 before the Department gets current. Oh, by the way, this backlog number reflects only those permits issued since 2003. Management has nothing to say about what to do with permits issued before then that are still open.
While BPIS seems to handle HVAC and other mechanical permits quickly, turning things around in a day or two, it’s taking two week or more to issue building permits for 38% of applications. With expensive crews and equipment ready to go, builders often start construction without a permit, and if there are further delays in permitting, inspections can be missed or overlooked, putting people and property at risk. When more than a third of construction projects are facing expensive delays, with many forced by economics to ignore permit requirements, this is not just bad. It’s very bad.
I’ve written about regional competitiveness before, discussing amalgamation. Giving builders, developers and contractors a smooth, efficient, transparent permit process is critical to Edmonton’s growth and prosperity. When it takes more than 1000 days to go from an Area Structure Plan to issuing of permits, we are just begging to have development pushed beyond our borders into the welcoming arms of our surrounding (and fast acting) neighbours.
But there is hope. Management has changed and I’m convinced we have the right people in the right positions at the top. We are also allocating proper resources to that management team to begin to address the issues. We are setting benchmarks so we can measure outcomes. I know from my business experience that what gets measured, gets fixed. With no goals or targets in place in the past, it’s no wonder BPIS is a mess. With measurables in place, I will be arguing at Council that we use them rigourously to hold people accountable.
The previous Council and the Auditor should be commended for tackling these long-standing industry complaints about permitting processes. I believe it’s time for a similar, brutal examination of the way the City handles ASPs, Neighbourhood Area Structure Plans and the like. You may hear more from me on that this Fall, but in the meantime, I’m encouraged that we have a basis upon which we can begin to shift from service mediocrity to service excellence. We should expect nothing less from ourselves as Councillors and demand nothing less from our Administration.