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Building office shake-up pays off

The good news: After the city revamped the Duluth Building Safety Office in late February, it takes less time to get a building plan reviewed and a permit issued.

The good news: After the city revamped the Duluth Building Safety Office in late February, it takes less time to get a building plan reviewed and a permit issued.

The bad news: The money earned from issuing permits in the summer has dropped

20 percent over the past two years, mostly because of a slump in new construction.

"If one big project had come in this year rather than next year, that wouldn't be the case," said Brian Bushey, deputy fire chief and building safety manager.

The big projects will come next year with the construction of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion as well as Duluth school district projects. The city expects an increase in inspection fees of more than $644,000 from 2008 to 2009, according to the city's 2009 budget proposal. That increase played a large role in balancing the 2009 budget.

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Bushey said rates won't increase next year, but the Building Safety Office will operate more efficiently.

"We think we have taken a significant first step," he said.

Leading up to the 2007 mayoral election, Duluth residents complained loudly about problems with the Building Safety Office. Mayoral candidates Don Ness and Charlie Bell responded by promising to revamp the office.

When Ness changed the office early this year, he relieved then-Building Official Duane Lasley of management responsibilities. Since then, the average time it takes to get a non-same-day permit has decreased from 20 days to 15, according to a data analysis by the News Tribune.

Bushey said the majority of the changes weren't implemented until about April, when staff members were charged with doing quicker reviews of plans and being held more accountable to customers.

Since then, according to data provided by the city, the time it has taken to get a building plan approved has dropped to about five days, a 31 percent decrease from 2006.

But perhaps the biggest change has been public perception of the office. One of the biggest complaints before the reorganization, Bushey said, was: "How long will it take to get a permit, and when will I get it?"

"Now we schedule plan reviews every morning and send e-mails [to customers] to let them know when they'll be done," he said.

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"People just weren't getting answers to their questions," he said. "I think there was a lack of information flowing out of this office to customers."

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