Norwalk begins ‘modernization’ of permitting and licensing system

The Building Department and Planning and Zoning Department combined issue about 3,000 permits each year. (File photo)

The Norwalk Common Council approved a $150,000 contract with Berry, Dunn, McNeil & Parker, LLC for software project management consulting services as the city starts a “modernization initiative,” which includes adopting a new online permitting and licensing system. The funding is coming from the city’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Jessica Vonashek, the city’s Chief of Community and Economic Development, told the Council that these services would help the city operate more efficiently. 

“We have a really cumbersome process when it comes to permits and licenses,” she said. “This modernization project is something that will help to streamline city government and will help to streamline the process not only for our city staff, who are doing the jobs and doing the tasks, but also, in addition to that, the folks that are bringing applications.”

The plan is to modernize the city’s systems in three phases, Vonashek said. The first phase—which is the work that Berry, Dunn, McNeil & Parker, LLC will be doing—includes conducting needs assessment, digitizing existing documentation, and developing a request for proposal for software selection. The second phase would include the “procurement and implementation of the chosen software across all relevant departments,” according to a memo from Vonashek, before the third phase, which includes ongoing maintenance to address any identified gaps. 

The need to modernize these systems is great, Vonashek said, and noted that these are recommendations that stem from the city’s 2021 efficiency study.

Each year, Vonashek estimated that the Building Department and Planning and Zoning Department combined issue about 3,000 permits, while the Engineering Department issues about 750 permits. 

In addition, the Health Department processes about 2,600 permits, conducts 2,950 inspections, and addresses 600 complaints each year. The city overall responds to about 70 complaints each month as well, around issues such as blight, zoning discrepancies, and other violations.

“To manage these permits and violations efficiently, the retrieval of over 200,000 documents scattered across the city’s various locations is imperative, involving meticulous effort from staff members,” Vonashek wrote.

She told the Council this work often requires manually searching through thousands of archived paper records and looking for “pieces of paper that we have city staffs are running to the basement or running to the health department basement or running to the Briggs School or wherever it happens to be in order to get these pieces of paper.” 

“We also have staff time that’s used in pulling boxes and pulling records that relate to field cards and help us answer questions based on the requests that are coming in.”

Council members said they were happy to support an initiative to help make the city run more smoothly.

“This is a very exciting item,” said council member Josh Goldstein. “This is a first step in a major effort by the city to make due on one of the core recommendations of the efficiency study.” 

Council member Barbara Smyth said she was glad they were addressing this issue. 

“For years, we have heard complaints from residents about this onerous process,” she said. “So it’s really important—it’s something we needed to address.” 

Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner said she appreciated the time back staff would get as a part of this upgrade.

“I love hearing the kinds of efficiencies and I think really getting our professional staff their time back to actually do their professional job–as opposed to spending time tracking down pieces of paper–will just be an enormous gift to everyone,” she said.

Vonashek said the goal is to improve the level of customer service residents, businesses, and developers receive. 

For example, she said those submitting permits do so in person at City Hall during office hours, and the process often requires visits to each department that has to sign off. This can result in at least 90 days of wait for businesses filing smaller permits, such as tenant fit-up approvals, and larger development projects requiring additional time.

“This timeline includes the cumbersome process of physically transferring applications between departments, a bottleneck that will be eradicated with the implementation of an online permitting and licensing software,” she wrote in the memo.

While council members said they were excited to get this project moving, Vonashek noted the full implementation would take years. 

She estimated that phase one would take between 12 and 24 months, with the implementation taking probably another 12 months. 

“I think the big thing about this presentation tonight is that this is really just phase one of a bigger modernization project, and one of the things that I wanted to make sure that the council understood was that although this particular piece is $150,000, the larger project will probably end up being between $1.5 and $2 million,” Vonashek said.


2 responses to “Norwalk begins ‘modernization’ of permitting and licensing system”

  1. Bryan Meek

    Sounds nice, but I wouldn’t count too much on a culture that couldn’t even implement inter office mail centuries after it was developed. The DMV has better customer service. Besides runaway spending, I can’t think of anything more onerous in our government than making taxpayers take time off of work to go to city hall and literally move papers down the hallway. All the digitization in the world isn’t going to change the mindset that they don’t work for the citizens.

  2. Vernon Howard

    My one need to interact with the Building Department since I moved here was a complete disaster (replace a bathtub). You can talk to different people in that department and receive completely different answers. Now, they want to add a layer of online perplexity that will probably worsen things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for automation and streamlining processes, but when the government does it, it usually ends with things being much more difficult and costing more money. No amount of streamlining, digitization, and automation will fix the problem if there’s no buy-in from employees who are content with doing the bare minimum for a paycheck and their fat retirement packages.

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