UPPER MARLBORO – The county Department of Permitting, Inspection and Enforcement (DPIE) is in just its fourth year of existence and already working to address staffing and technology issues through the budget process. The county council Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee hosted DPIE Director Haitham Hijazi and some of his staff for a […]
UPPER MARLBORO – The county Department of Permitting, Inspection and Enforcement (DPIE) is in just its fourth year of existence and already working to address staffing and technology issues through the budget process.
The county council Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee hosted DPIE Director Haitham Hijazi and some of his staff for a budget work session on April 26. The fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget proposal increases DPIE’s budget by 30.7 percent, to $11.13 million. Some of that increase is due to the first phase of financing for a new electronic permitting system: $3.24 million for software and $554,100 for hardware. Hijazi said the upgrades are sorely needed.
“Prince George’s County DPIE, when it comes to e-permitting, which is our electronic permit system, is really antiquated, with an old system. We are behind all our peers in the region,” he said. “Now, since the funding is in place, hopefully we’re going to be close to our peers, or even much better.”
The entire upgrade process will take about 28 months from beginning to end, Hijazi said.
DPIE’s enforcement section, which handles code violations and complaints, already has an automated system, which Hijazi said is making the process more streamlined for inspectors on the ground.
“Even though we don’t have it on the permit side, we were able to adopt it for the enforcement side. And now we are 100 percent automated, so the staff has their tablets, their printers, in their cars. They can go do the inspection, issue the citation and the information will be uploaded into the computer,” he said.
The replacement of the permitting and licensing system is a major goal of the agency’s five-year strategic plan, Hijazi said. Another aspect of the plan is increasing the staff complement and filling vacancies at DPIE.
Council member Mary Lehman, vice-chair of the committee, said vacancies are a problem at several county departments.
“I’m glad to see you filled some of your vacancies, but 37 is still a lot of vacancies for an agency your size,” she said, adding that having a large number of vacancies “hobbles our agencies from being really efficient.”
Hijazi said the number of vacancies is now down to 35, but acknowledged the vacancies are part of the reason for the department’s $375,000 higher-than-predicted overtime expenses last year. Other factors include an increased number of complaints and more time spent outreaching to the community by sending inspectors to community association meetings countywide. The FY18 proposal asks for $30,000 more than in FY17 for overtime.
Additionally, the department is moving forward with strategies to fill those vacancies. The budget proposal provides money for 11 previously unfunded vacancies at a cost of $434,900. Hijazi said the department is aggressive in advertising its openings continuously through the fiscal year. Legislation recently passed by the council providing for higher salaries has also helped DPIE to hire candidates, he said.
“It (the county’s pay scale) was the worst in the region,” Hijazi said. “With this legislation being enacted and the money being increased, we were able to even get some inspectors back.”
Councilman Obie Patterson said that was welcome news.
“The inspectors come in and make so little money you were almost at the point of being just a training site- you get them in, get them trained and they move on,” Patterson said. “But it appears to be that perhaps we started putting a little stop on some of that. I’m happy to hear the good feedback.”
Others on the council had questions about DPIE’s use of third-party inspectors. Hijazi said most of the commercial inspections are done using third-party inspectors, and DPIE also has a peer review program where peers in the industry get county certifications to review building permit applications.
“They (businesses) pay for it, the county doesn’t pay for it, which is really creating a win-win situation for the county and for the business industry,” he said.
THE chair Todd Turner asked if the county keeps track of how often each peer reviewer is chosen to do a review, which Hijazi said it does. Councilwoman Deni Taveras said she was concerned about the program’s cost as well as the ability of the county to oversee permits reviewed by peer reviewers.
“I beseech you to be sensitive to the fact that, yes, that may be a great idea for large projects, but for smaller projects that don’t have unlimited amounts of money, I’m just concerned,” she said. “I think that privatizing or outsourcing our oversight capacity, that’s basically what we’re doing with these third-party inspections.”
Hijazi said the peer reviewers go through training and continuing education to get and keep their ability to be in the program. County staff still sign off on the final permits, but this system allows for review to be completed faster, he argued.
“It is up to the county inspector to make sure that everything is done systematically on a weekly basis. At the end, they get their permit and the county code department will sign off on it and the county inspector will sign off on it,” Hijazi said. “If they really want to be in and out fast, that’s the way to go. Time is money.”
DPIE’s budget will be approved by the county council alongside that of the other county agencies later this month.