Low staffing and complaints by Butler Co. builders spur overhaul of permitting processes

Permits from users also lacking information, commissioner says

Staff shortages in the Butler County Development Department prompted the commissioners to approve a $100,000 contract for extra help and call for improvements in the development approval process.

Commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers said they have been getting complaints about the process builders must navigate to get their projects approved. Dixon said developers have to hand carry documents to the various entities that need to sign off on each facet of a development, Dixon said “we need to get up to the rest of the world here.”

“This is not how we should be operating in today’s world,” Dixon said. “There should be a process that once you file that permit you don’t see it again until it’s ready to be picked up.... It’s not the way we should be doing business in Butler County , the seventh largest county in the state of Ohio. This needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed fairly quickly.”

The county purchased a new $275,000 software upgrade two years ago to make it easier for people to do business with the county. The office had online access previously but it wasn’t user friendly. The system allows people to schedule their own inspections, check on the status, pay with a credit card and other services, allowing people to conduct business even when the development office is closed.

Fehr said the new system is running but they haven’t deployed the phone app yet which makes it “clunkier.” Dixon told the Journal-News they need to get a representative from the software company in to help the county deploy the new system properly and train employees on its use.

Rogers, who is a developer, said part of the problem is basically user error.

“People want their permits faster but I’ve gotten into it and I’d say half of them were because they did not submit complete information,” Rogers said, adding many people aren’t even using the new system yet.

Staffing issues have also been a problem. On Monday the commissioners approved hiring SAFEbuilt Ohio LLC for up to $100,000 to perform building, electrical, fire protection, and mechanical inspection services; plan review; general consultant management and processes services; and building official services.

Development Department Director David Fehr told the Journal-News they have been operating without a commercial building inspector and he is down a regular inspector for residential; he normally has two.

“I sort of told them this is starting to feel like an emergency,” he said.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said a “perfect storm” has led to the need for an overhaul of the building permitting processes.

“It didn’t happen overnight; the need to reinvent the County’s building permit processes has been evolving over time. With a reduction in staff, a loss of institutional knowledge, coupled with the volume and complexities of development projects, the blemishes in our processes are now more grossly apparent,” Boyko said. “All of these components created this perfect storm, resulting in customer service delays.”

“The board of commissioners is committed to remedying the problems,” Boyko added.

Rogers said the booming building business is also hampering the hiring effort, “it is harder to get inspectors when the construction industry is doing well because they are doing construction.”

The development department has experienced staff shortages in a number of areas. Fehr is responsible for building, planning and zoning, economic development, the Port Authority, his department has staffed the land bank and run the airport.

Mike McNamara used to head both the land bank and port authority but he left to become Clermont County’s economic development director in August 2020. The commissioners decided to split the duties with his departure. Seth Geisler is running the land bank now, Fehr is handling the port authority himself.

When the commissioners hired Scott Timmer last summer as the assistant county administrator he was supposed to be the point man for the Port Authority as well. He resigned in January, returning to the city of Fairfield as its city manager.

Desmond Maaytah, who used to handle Community Development Block Grant and other federal funding left his position as community development administrator last summer. The commissioners hired Susan Ellerhorst in December to take his place.

County administration also has a few vacancies, a replacement for Timmer, a finance director and the commissioners have expressed the desire to hire an economic development director.

Dixon acknowledged the labor shortage is universal right now so they are trying to find ways to handle it.

“The answer is you have to use more technology, you have to be able to do more work with less labor forces because they’re not out there,” Dixon said. “So anything we can do to enhance that. We’ve been pushing that with all departments, if you can come up with a piece of equipment or an electronic package or something that makes it work better for your office and doesn’t take more labor, bring it to us.”

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