Oregon builds shared services model for foundation of e-permitting portal

When Oregon’s building and construction boom went bust between 2005-07, the state’s top administrator of building codes saw a way to help local officials streamline how industry and government coordinated their efforts. Pat Allen, of the state’s Building Codes Division, envisioned a statewide, interoperable, web-based e-permitting system that provides a shared services model for local governments and an always-on portal for developers and contractors.

Oregon’s Building Codes Division is part of the state’s Department of Consumer & Business Services (DCBS). DCBS helps to promote economic development while ensuring regulatory compliance within the state’s industry. And specifically, the Building Codes Division (BCD) provides code development, inspection, plan review, licensing, and permit services to the construction industry.

Traditional permitting is an arduous process for both builders and local government overseers. Jurisdictional and geographic fragmentation costs money in lost time and wasted resources. For instance, just knowing the location of a site doesn’t always make it simple to know which forms and standards are needed, especially if city or county lines are closely intertwined.

“In Oregon there are 134 cities and counties who issue building licenses and permits,” Mr. Allen said during a recent presentation. “It’s the kind of partnership that can get complex.” Each of the 134 jurisdictions has their own portfolio of permits and series of documents, Allen added.

Even if this scenario is not a standard problem, having multiple delays between inspections and construction can lead to lost revenue for all parties involved. But because most jurisdictions were getting a steady inflow of funds through building permits until the last few years, little interest was paid to these kinds of inefficiencies.

So in 2005, the build-out of an e-permitting system in the Portland metro area went largely unnoticed. The project was a relatively simple electronic submission system, but in 2008, with the help of Accela, Oregon began tinkering with a cross-jurisdictional idea that would grant builders access to forms and applications anytime and anywhere. And it would eliminate the need for expensive and redundant IT systems to be maintained in each city and county.

According to Accela CEO Maury Blackman, the cumbersome process of getting permits in most places today means going directly to the agency, or their website, and finding where to apply for the permit.

“Oregon’s system is different because it allows contractors to go to the state’s website and initiate multiple permit processes at one time,” he said. “Just like shopping for books at Amazon.com, the builder gets the permits and then checks out.”

The current incarnation of Oregon’s building permits portal, BuildingPermits.Oregon.gov, went live using Accela Citizen Access and Accela Automation about a year ago. For participating cities and counties, the project has meant access to Accela’s submission, tracking, payment and printout system – through the hosted service – and Oregon’s program now serves building contractors from 33 municipal departments statewide and has processed more than 70,000 permits totaling over $7.2 million since 2005.

Two particular noteworthy sidebars about the project, Blackman said, was the ability of the local jurisdiction to collect all fees directly from the permit seeker without the state receiving the money first. “The state doesn’t handle the money,” Blackman explained, “when the user hits ‘buy’ all funds and fees go straight to the municipality. The state is just the broker – it’s providing the store front.”

Blackman said that was an important element of the project so local governments didn’t have to wait for state coffers to reallocate funds back to them. “That structure is critical for local governments in this economic environment.” For the state’s part, it collects a 4% surcharge on building permits to pay for system maintenance and enhancements as more jurisdictions come online.

The other important aspect about the project is that despite a decline in overall building in Oregon, online permits processed through the system have remained consistent. Mr. Blackman thinks this speaks not only to the system’s effectiveness, but also to its easy user interface. “If you make it easier for contractors to buy permits, they’re more likely to comply, therefore increasing budgets,” he said.

Looking towards the future, Accela has another five years on its 10-year deal with Oregon and Mr. Blackman believes the project can be a model of effectiveness in the face of austere budgets, and increasing citizen expectations.

“I see a situation in the very near future where contractors are scheduling inspections and pulling permits over iPhones and Android apps, and state workers are getting the alerts on their device – it will be a smooth, quick electronic transaction,” he said.

“It’s all there – we’re doing it.”

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