Pittsburgh's Bureau of Building Inspection lacked Internet, email until this year

In 2012, City Controller Michael Lamb blasted the Bureau of Building Inspection in a report that found about $157,000 worth of laptops were stored in a closet unused nearly two years after they were purchased.

When new BBI Chief Maura Kennedy arrived in Pittsburgh from Philadelphia in March, she discovered one of the reasons the computers were gathering dust.

The bureau's offices on Ross Street were not wired for Internet access.

"I had not anticipated that," Ms. Kennedy said, adding that the city's 45 inspectors also had no email, lacked city-issued cell phones and shared four computers. "I also hadn't anticipated how strong the staff was going to be."

Four months into her tenure, Ms. Kennedy's department, which reviews and issues construction permits, enforces city code and regulates amusement, business and trade licenses, is still working to bring itself into the 21st century as it grapples with an onslaught of permit requests and staff shortages. The laptops, intended to allow inspectors to spend more time in the field, have come out of the closet and onto desktops, though inspectors have trouble using them in the field because of server problems the bureau is trying to correct.

"I haven't spent much time revisiting the past on how we got here," she said. "There are a lot of great, hard-working people here."

During Mayor Bill Peduto's tour of the bureau last week, Ms. Kennedy said commercial and residential permit requests, everything from major new construction to renovations, are up 16 percent from the same point in 2012. By July of this year, the city had issued 2,249 permits, up from 1,885 permits a year before and 1,704 in 2012.

"People want to do business here, people want to build here, and people want to live here, and BBI really wants to be their partner in making that possible," she said. "In the coming months ... we want to do online permitting and licensing, increase the number of payment options for the bureau, and we also want to increase our transparency by actually showing citizens and businesses what types of permits and licenses we're issuing and where they're happening, so they can actually see in real time what's happening in their neighborhood."

Mr. Peduto shook hands with managers and inspectors, pointing to stacks of building plans and renderings lying on desks and telling them the city is working to automate plan-review and permitting processes and fill vacant positions to ease the workload. BBI is budgeted for 73 employees but now has only about 50.

Despite budget-driven restrictions on hiring, the mayor has given the bureau the go-ahead to add employees, including about 10 inspector vacancies.

"The upgrades that have happened, through the technology, has made them more efficient, even though this bureau faced one of the greatest turnovers in staffing with an entire new executive team," the mayor said. "We're still working to fill out the positions of inspectors while at the same time facing the tsunami of permit requests that have been coming in because of all of the building going on in the city."

The bureau is also still in the process of fully implementing a software system purchased in 2009 that would allow online permit application, plan review and payments. She said the bureau is still paying licensing fees for the software as it pushes to get the system in place but is not paying travel and meal expenses for contractor California-based Accela Inc. She added the change in administration has not slowed the process.

"It's a priority," Ms. Kennedy said. "It's a key step toward improving efficiency for our customers."

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She acknowledged that the bureau has lagged behind reviewing plans within the 30-day time-frame the state's Uniform Construction Code outlined, a complaint one designer raised who visited the office last week to have plans reviewed, though he declined to be identified.

"We're missing some significant personnel in that unit," Ms. Kennedy said.

New procedures will separate permit requests into different pipelines, so simpler jobs such as fences and retaining walls don't have to queue behind major building projects such as the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza, which is what used to happen, Ms. Kennedy added.

"We believe with additional staff and, frankly, a better process we can meet and exceed the standard," she said.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.

First Published August 2, 2014 9:00 PM

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