Bad News for Portland's Paperless Permitting System

Significant delays could force the already over-budget project beyond its $11.8 million price tag.

by Brad Schmidt, The Oregonian / April 23, 2015

(TNS) -- Portland's troubled paperless permitting system won't be ready by February 2016, and the project is so far off track that a new timeline won't be available until July, city officials said Wednesday.

Significant delays could force the already over-budget project beyond its $11.8 million price tag.

Paul Scarlett, director of the Bureau of Development Services, delivered the bad news Wednesday in response to a new quarterly technology oversight report, similar to one that first flagged "serious concerns" for the City Council in September 2014.

An oversight committee of technology experts has labeled the project's timeline, budget and scope as "red" since December.

"We don't want to be in the red," Scarlett said.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees Portland's development bureau, said the project is so far behind schedule that it will never be able to catch up. The only way to move forward is to revise the schedule and move the goal posts.

"I'm hopeful we're on the right track," Fritz said.

The paperless system, first proposed by then-Commissioner Randy Leonard and later Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is supposed to revamp the city's recordkeeping within the permitting bureau. Officials originally gave it an $8.2 million budget and a May 2015 completion date, although both were low-confidence estimates.

Called the Information Technology Advancement Project, the endeavor is expected to allow developers to submit applications electronically and give employees the ability to access documents from the field, among other things.

But city officials have repeatedly blamed the lead vendor, Sierra Systems Inc., for setbacks.

Ben Berry, Portland's chief technology officer, said in September that Sierra had replaced 14 of 15 positions. On Wednesday, he said there's been full turnover on what's now 17 positions – including at least Sierra's second project manager.

"That does indicate that it's not the city's fault that this project is now in red," Fritz said.

Scarlett said the latest timeline for completion -- February 2016 -- is "not going to happen." He said further delays of six or nine months may increase costs, although the project has a $1 million contingency that would be tapped first.

"Would there be an increase in budget?" Scarlett said. "Maybe."

During the City Council hearing, bureaucrats were careful not to use the word "delay" to describe the setback. Instead, Berry said the city needs to "elongate the schedule."

"I think we can turn this project around," he said, "but we do have to give the project some breathing room on the schedule."

Officials are discussing contract modifications with four vendors and hope to have a new, unofficial timeline by July, when the city's Technology Oversight Committee will again report to the City Council.

In an interview, the city's project manager since fall 2013, Rebecca Sponsel, said she thinks progress is being made. But she warned that the City Council presentation in July will show further "red" before hopefully turning the corner.

"If you're chasing a date, then your priorities are in the wrong place," she said. "The business priorities are: Get it right, make sure it works and make sure we can support it."

In other City Council news:

The City Council approved spending $1.3 million to buy a quarter-block in the Pearl District for affordable housing. Portland officials are buying the land from Hoyt Street Properties because the company didn't meet affordable housing goals set in 1999. The city's only recourse was to secure property. The sale price is 13 percent below the land's $1.5 million market value, officials said.

Officials extended bird-friendly guidelines to all city-owned buildings. As part of an update to Portland's green-building policy, officials originally proposed applying bird standards in specific parts of town, but Commissioner Dan Saltzman persuaded the City Council to extend guidelines citywide. Bird deaths have been reported at one of the city's high-profile eco-friendly buildings, the Bureau of Environmental Service's Columbia Building.

Mayor Charlie Hales abruptly adjourned Wednesday's meeting because protesters stormed in front of the dais to protest the proposed Pembina propane terminal. The protestors held signs of each member of the City Council and read a prepared statement, noting their display was timed for Earth Day. Saltzman, who has served on the City Council since 1999, said he'd never seen anything like it.

©2015 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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