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Is Portland’s New Paperless Building Permit System Doomed?

Portland, Ore., is all-in on using technology that enables contractors to apply for building permits online. But the sheer complexity of the project and difficulties with the vendor are delaying its completion.

by / February 12, 2015
Portland's new electronic building permits system is running into problems. Shutterstock

A plan to modernize the way building permits are handled in Portland, Ore., may be falling apart at the seams.

The Information Technology Advancement Project (ITAP) – which enables people to apply for and access building permits and records electronically – is behind schedule and could fall into the red if it continues, according to a report from Portland’s Technology Oversight Committee (TOC).

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who leads Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, is overseeing the project. She told The Oregonian last week that she wasn’t optimistic that the system would be completed on time and on budget.

Paul Scarlett, director of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, told Government Technology that the complexity of the new technology and staff turnover from the vendor – Sierra Systems – led to incorrect assumptions, which were the primary reasons for the work getting behind schedule. He noted that the system will also interface with numerous city departments, so getting everyone on the same page has taken time.

Sierra Systems did not respond to Government Technology’s interview request. But critics weren't surprised at the difficulties the project is having and are skeptical whether it will be successful.

“It is just another embarrassment in an unbroken string of Portland city failures,” said Jason Williams of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon, a watchdog group. Williams noted that the city has had expensive issues with its water bureau, has over-spent on contracts, paid twice to remodel one of its buildings, and spent $7 million to fix a local bridge – an overhaul that only lasted two years. 

A paperless building permit system enables all city personnel, engineers, architects and all people relevant to a project to view plans simultaneously. It gives contractors the ability to submit their plans electronically, without having to haul them down to city offices and file them manually for approval.

Moving to an online permit process is a growing trend among local governments. Clark County, Nev., uses one, and Cupertino, Calif., launched an electronic platform in summer 2013.

Looking Ahead

Portland’s latest estimated completion date for its paperless building permit system is winter 2016, according to Scarlett. That puts its debut more than seven months later than the initial plan. The budget has also increased from $8.2 million to $11.8 million. Scarlett didn’t anticipate the costs going much higher, however, because the contract with Sierra Systems is written “not to exceed” a certain amount.

“I believe it’s like a 20 percent contingency, so that’s a pretty healthy amount to absorb any changes that could potentially come up,” Scarlett added.

In addition to the workflow efficiencies for both the city and the public, Scarlett noted Portland could see some financial savings. He explained that as the permit process is streamlined the city should see some "cost avoidance" by not having to hire additional staff in the future. Portland currently has 10 staff members spread out over different workgroups that handle building permits, inspections and related matters.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to clarify how the ITAP will generate financial savings for Portland.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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