No, the trouble with Dallas building permits and inspections isn’t over.
The computer system that is supposed to help commercial and residential developers obtain permits isn’t working as intended and the permitting department is losing skilled workers to private sector employers.
This should signal urgency. But at a briefing this week, the Dallas City Council again heard that the city’s effort to streamline building permits is going to be a tedious slog that could take two to three years to complete.
At City Hall, two to three years may be considered the speed of light, but in the real world of commercial builders that is the equivalent of watching an iceberg melt. Builders need cities to respond to market conditions in real time or they will take their opportunities elsewhere where the barriers to entry aren’t as cumbersome. That includes Dallas’ economic rivals in the suburbs, where permitting is known to be smooth and easy.
This is why we are disappointed to have heard once again about problems with tracking permit applications, malfunctioning computer software and persistent staffing shortages. Development services director Andrew Espinosa says his office wants to routinely issue residential building permits within three to five business days, have workers consistently respond to customers within 24 hours and have at least 75% of surveyed customers expressing satisfaction with city service.
So when is this expected to happen? The target is the end of September 2023. But a lot is going to have to change. As this newspaper recently reported, the turnaround time for the city to issue a residential permit in September is an average of 40 days, up from 32- and 33-day averages from June through August but down from 58 days in May and 55 days in April. This tells us that the staffing and computer issues are hindering progress, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed to developers. If other cities for a variety of reasons can issue permits in considerably less time, then Dallas is missing out on economic opportunities.
The latest city budget adds 54 positions to the department, and there are plans to review worker pay, which some say could be $40,000 a year less than the same skilled worker can command in the private sector. Development Services currently has 78 position vacancies from workers departing faster than the city can hire and train new ones.
While efforts are underway to fix the problems, it is not clear that the City Council and city manager’s office fully appreciate the economic imperative. They all generally agree that the city’s zoning and land use policies are outdated, fragmented and confusing to staffers and applicants, But that complexity generates unnecessarily long reviews and delays made worse when computers and staff can’t keep up.
Issues with the development services office were among the reasons Mayor Eric Johnson advocated for the council to vote to fire City Manager T.C. Broadnax in June before the two reached a political detente. The eruption at least appears to have created a sense of urgency. But talent, technology and time remain the city’s biggest challenges. The council and manager must pick up the pace of change.
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