Tech shabby? One Pittsburgh agency still runs on pen, paper

Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Building Inspection has been working to install a software system since 2009 that would allow people to apply and pay for permits online, but it has still not been fully installed, and the bureau continues to operate largely on pen and paper while paying for the unused software.

The Bureau of Building Inspection is responsible for reviewing, approving and issuing occupancy, contracting and building permits, among others, and enforcing city codes. More than 200,000 permits are issued each year, but they only can be submitted as a hard copy and paid for with cash, personal check or cashier’s check.

In 2009, the city passed a resolution that updated an existing contract with Accela Inc. to develop and install a Web-based permitting system called Citizens Access Module that allows residents to apply for, pay for and track permits online.

Accela is a California-based company that streamlines management and government operations. City governments in New York, Seattle, Sacramento, Atlanta and San Francisco also use the company’s software products.

Accela also was contracted to upgrade the bureau’s back-office computer software, which had a program released in 2000.

Between 2009 and 2011, the city paid Accela more than $1.4 million for both jobs.

The money was spent on license, upgrade and maintenance fees to Accela, according to invoices city Controller Michael Lamb’s office provided.

In a February 2011 news release, then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the completion of the first phase of the Accela project: the creation of a Web-based, inter-departmental permitting workflow system, the input of 15 years of historical permitting data and the training of 100 city employees. He said the city would be moving into the second phase of the project “in the coming months.”

According to the news release, the next phase included bringing the public “online,” allowing applicants to pay for most permits with a credit card, track the approval process and acquire information about permits issued in their area.

The city couldn’t accept credit cards as a method for payment at the time of Mr. Ravenstahl’s announcement in 2011, which delayed the implementation of software.

In 2012, Councilwoman Darlene Harris introduced legislation to city council that would allow people to use credit cards, with a goal to “develop a point-of-sale system at every cash entry point in every department in the city.”

The legislation was approved, but the city still doesn’t accept credit cards.

“It’s in the hands of the mayor to make it happen,” Ms. Harris said.

Because the city only accepts checks and cash, the city loses money whenever a check bounces because there is no system in place for holding people accountable for paying fees when checks are returned for insufficient funds.

A city controller’s office report last month revealed that over the past six years, the city received $381,000 worth of bad checks.

Forty-six percent of those checks were in building inspection, adding up to $133,871.

The city paid Accela $166,766 between 2012 and 2014, and continues to pay the company to update, maintain and license the back-office software and hardware, which in some cases involves paying for an Accela representative’s meals, lodging and transportation, according to invoices from the controller’s office.

Mr. Lamb said that laptops intended for building inspectors to use for onsite work were being stored in a closet unused after the first phase while the city paid for their monthly wireless service charges. He was uncertain about the current status of those computers.

The online Citizen Access software also continues to appear on invoices for maintenance charges despite going unused. One from April lists an $11,602 maintenance fee for a period between June 2012 and June 2013.

When asked about the status of the software, an Accela spokeswoman said, “We know that each implementation is unique, based on technology requirements and agency needs, and our mission is to work together with agencies like Pittsburgh to help them achieve their goals. We look forward to continuing our work with the city and look forward to a successful implementation.”

Ms. Harris’ office said she was under the impression that the software was “underway and fully implemented quite a while ago.”

In March 2014, Mayor Bill Peduto hired Maura Kennedy, who modernized Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, as the new chief of the local bureau, but the change of administrations has delayed the implementation of the software.

“We’ve long been advocates for them having a stronger Web-based application for permits, for filing and for all of those functions they perform,” said Mr. Lamb, who noted that the controller’s office, which acts as the city’s fiscal watchdog, works frequently with the bureau, “and for citations, they should have a much stronger Web-based application right now. Accela was supposed to be the answer. We are several years away.”

In its 2011 audit of the bureau, the controller’s office concluded that recurring software glitches and outdated property ownership information were “hampering BBI code inspector effectiveness. A fully operational, integrated and upgraded software system with accurate data will increase the effectiveness of Bureau operations.”

Ms. Harris said she went to the bureau in search of information about building code violations for a particular street and wasn’t able to obtain any.

Sonya Toler, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety, said building inspectors lacked access to computers, email or cell phones when Ms. Kennedy took her position in March.

Ms. Toler, the bureau and the mayor’‍s office declined to comment about the computer delays.

“It is far too early in the process for myself or Chief Kennedy to speak about software changes that BBI will be instituting,” Ms. Toler said. “Those changes have not been implemented fully. Additionally, when that time comes, we cannot address what didn’t happen in previous administrations.”

Council President Bruce Kraus said Ms. Kennedy is the right person at the right time for addressing the bureau’s problems.

“She shows amazing managerial and people skills,” he said. “If anyone can lead that department into the future, it’s her.”

Max Radwin:, 412-263-1280 or on Twitter @MaxRadwin.

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