Thursday, September 13, 2012

Phoenix expedites building process

Phoenix is fast-tracking its process for building-plan reviews and inspections, eliminating red tape and making the city a magnet for new companies, supporters of the move say.

The changes have been widely praised by business leaders who say they give Phoenix a competitive edge in attracting employers looking to open their doors quickly and for less money. Few cities around the country have pursued similar outsourcing.

But the issue has sparked a debate over how far the city should go to coax development: At what point does reducing direct government oversight of building projects become a safety risk?

City planning officials are beginning to implement changes recommended by a 125-member task force charged with finding ways to streamline the development process. Council members approved the last of the new policies earlier this month.

The centerpiece of the overhaul is expansion of a self-certification program that allows architects and structural engineers to review their own building plans to ensure that they comply with city code.

Once building plans are submitted through the program, a permit is guaranteed within 24 hours. The option is available to those who undergo training and random audits, though it excludes some projects, including high-rises, stadiums, buildings on hillsides and hazardous occupancies such as chemical plants.

Although city leaders were mostly united in backing such expedited plan reviews, there was a fierce ideological divide over an attempt to take it a step further and privatize more building inspections.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who led the task force with Councilman Tom Simplot, pushed to change city policy to allow developers to pick their own inspectors. He said the move was aimed at speeding up the often-delayed process and making Phoenix the best city in which to do business.

"If we want to attract those jobs, we have to be faster and smarter than everyone else," DiCiccio said. "Individuals should have a right to choose between private or public."

The drive to privatize inspections was fought by city staff, employee unions and some industry professionals, who said the potential for corruption could jeopardize public safety. They said builders would be more likely to cut corners if they could choose their inspectors.

When a new building is constructed in the city, it generally goes through a three-step approval process to ensure it meets all zoning, building and safety codes: A site-layout plan is approved; detailed building plans are reviewed and a permit issued; and an inspector evaluates the project and issues the final certificate of occupancy.

Debra Stark, Phoenix planning and development director, said while the city was willing to streamline the second part of the process with self-certification for plan review, it cannot give up safety inspections -- its final line of defense against potential problems.

"We've got to have that balance," she said. "We're not in it to cut corners -- we're in it for life safety."

After facing opposition, DiCiccio scaled back his outsourcing proposal, suggesting the city simply let developers decide whether to use a public or private inspector. City planners would then choose the inspector from a list of approved contract specialists.

But DiCiccio's attempt was ultimately blocked when union leaders walked out of the task force's last meeting, forcing DiCiccio to adjourn because there wasn't a quorum left to vote to send the item to the City Council.

Frank Piccioli, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 2960, said he opposed privatizing inspections because of the risk to safety. He said city inspectors bring an independent, unbiased set of eyes to the building sites they examine.

"None of these codes were put into place until some disaster happened," Piccioli said. "If I hire my own guy to inspect my building, do you think he's going to object to anything?'

Despite the setback for DiCiccio, don't expect the proposal to go away. The councilman said he plans to bring it to the full council by October, calling the union leaders' move a "significant delay."

DiCiccio said it's incorrect to assume government inspectors are more effective or any less likely to be corrupt. He said the city could still conduct audits, and engineers and architects have an incentive to do their jobs right because they are liable for any structural failures.

Council members did take some steps to speed up the inspection process, adopting a policy requiring a 24-hour turnaround time on requests. They also approved a program in which private contractors will be allowed to conduct inspections for non-life-safety items, such as landscaping and the green building code.

Details of how the changes might be implemented are still being reviewed by city staff. Their recommendations are expected to come back to the council by late October.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said the policies the council approved this month show it is business-friendly but unwilling to compromise on public safety. He said the city's development-services director should continue to decide who does inspections.

"I think the end result of this struck the right balance," Stanton said. "We ultimately are charged with public safety. That is one of our most important jobs we have as city government."

Several of the changes council members adopted have drawn support from a wide array of groups, including economists, unions, developers and others. DiCiccio said getting that group to come together was a huge, albeit sometimes painful, victory.

"What Phoenix has done is nothing less than groundbreaking," former Mayor Paul Johnson said. "As a contractor, I think (the changes) are significant."

by Dustin Gardiner - Jul. 29, 2012 The Republic |

Phoenix expedites building process

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