Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — One of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s campaign promises was to cut the red tape for businesses and streamline the permitting process — and now she and her staff are saying they’ve made a big step.
Biskupski’s office announced Monday city officials have cut the time to get a business permit review by nearly half, with wait times averaging 59 days in 2017, down from 114 days in 2015, according to staff.
“When businesses want to invest in Salt Lake City, we don’t want to get in the way,” Biskupski said in a statement.
Local businessman David Heiblim, who owns several restaurants in Salt Lake City, credited Biskupski for heading in the “right direction” to improving the city’s permitting process, which he said can at times be “tricky,” riddled with unexpected complications and miscommunication.
Heiblim said he’s experienced a fair share of issues with Salt Lake City in the past, including a “challenging” expansion to his Este Pizzeria location downtown in 2008.
“The problem is there was no streamlined system,” he said, noting that oftentimes permitting staff wouldn’t communicate certain deadlines or other requirements. “If you’re not ready, you fail. But it’s getting better.”
Earlier this year, Heiblim had a six-week delay opening his newest restaurant, The Dispensary, 54 W. 1700 South, in April — but he said it wasn’t because of the permitting wait times. Rather, it was delayed because of his application for a new ventilation hood above an oven that needed an engineer’s approval.
Overall, Heiblim said he’s experienced fairly speedy permitting wait times.
“From a small business’ perspective, the permitting process as far as wait times go is fantastic,” he said.
Along the 2015 campaign trail, then-candidate Biskupski promised to “eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic red tape” and to “streamline and simplify” the business license process.
When she took office, Biskupski asked building and licensing leaders to improve the city’s permitting reputation. Orion Goff, the building and licensing service director, recommended more full-time plan examiners to serve walk-in customers.
“The mayor trusting my opinion about the need for new employees is huge,” Goff said in a prepared statement. “She is the first mayor to give me additional staff.”
Goff’s department also modified the city’s software so permits needed from multiple departments could be processed concurrently, meaning one permit didn’t need to be approved before the next could get started. The new software also allowed different city departments to communicate online.
Additionally, a liaison was added to help business owners troubleshoot problems.
George Ott, building services and economic development liaison, said the city’s new online system also helps business owners submit applications online rather than have to submit materials in person at the city office.
Ken Anderson, building services manager, said in an interview Monday that the process has also been streamlined by organizing permits into three different “queues” within his office: One for large, multimillion dollar projects, one for smaller residential remodels, and another for other more regular commercial businesses permits such as restaurants or office remodels.
“The combination of the extra help and separating things out into those different queues were really key in shaving off that amount of time,” Ott said.
Anderson also said there’s been a culture shift within his staff to prioritize customer service and “getting to ‘yes'” in the permitting process.
“We’ve really worked hard at changing the attitude of people in this office,” Anderson said. “If there’s a problem, (we) try to help them find a solution or come up with some suggestions to help. … That’s a big part of our goal, and I think it’s helped us with customer satisfaction.”
But Heiblim said there’s still room for improvement. He said city officials who process the permits are often hypersensitive to “risk mitigation,” pointing out that it cost him several weeks and roughly $5,000 more to get an engineer to “rubber stamp” the new hood for his oven.
Goff said there are more improvements coming, including another upgrade of the city’s electronic system, which will be implemented this summer.
Ott also urged businesses to speed up the process by asking the right questions to find out which permits are needed, research design professionals to help produce construction documents needed for the permit application, and familiarize themselves with the city’s computer tools at slcgov.opencounter.com, aca.slcgov.com and slcgov.com.