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Council Gets Update About EPIC Permitting System

By Nathan Christophel
August 2, 2022, 3:00 PM HST
* Updated August 2, 2:13 PM
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Hawai‘i County Council members got an update about the county’s new building permit system Tuesday, Aug. 2, during a meeting of the council’s Public Works and Mass Transit Committee, and while challenges still exist, strides are being made.

Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba requested the update about the Electronic Processing Information Center, or EPIC, permitting system, the first since since the ousting of former Department of Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst, to get a better handle on how the process and system are working and where the county goes from here.

Hawai’i County Managing Director Lee Lord, left, and Department of Public Works Interim Director Steven Pause appear Tuesday, Aug. 2, before the County Council Public Works and Mass Transit Committee. (Screenshot from video)

The EPIC system was rolled out a little more than a year ago.

“The overall concept of taking what we did and adapting it into an electronic system, I don’t think anybody has disagreed with that approach, going the electronic route,” said DPW Interim Director Steven Pause. “But we’ve also took on a big bite by transitioning a lot of the legacy applications and getting that into the system.”

The department has one final data migration that is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 19. That will be the final amount of information that fell through the cracks or didn’t quite make it in until now.

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“You kind of look at this overall approach that we’ve gone on, this journey if you will, and I think about the change curve,” Pause said. “You start off with something and you’re changing the way people do things — the way public applies for permits, the way our permit clerks intake permits, the way our reviewers review permits.”

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He said there was an intial shock and frustration, but the county is getting close to the community’s acceptance of the new permitting system. He’s heard feedback from community members that the EPIC system is a good idea, but at the end of the day, it still comes back down to the issues of people, process and technology.

County Managing Director Lee Lord said a consultant, who has worked with permitting and processing in locations throughout states in the West, was hired to look specifically at those three issues and make recommendations on how the department can improve the permitting process and EPIC system.

“His job was to look at the process that happens for permitting, the interactions that the staff have with the people that they interact with, as well as the machines that we use and the tools that we use, including EPIC,” Lord said. “So, basically, we’re asking him to look at our whole system and the whole process and compare it to what he knows as the national and local standard that works the best and give us suggestions for how to improve the process.”

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He added that the county will need to see the scope of recommendations from the consultant and determine a timeline to implement those changes.

“As stated by other people, it’s not going to be one thing, it’s going to be many things,” Lord said. “It might be big changes.”

There have been several questionnaires from the consultant to different staff, including people in the Planning Department. Other stakeholders, such as people who use the system frequently and people who have had concerns about the process in the past, also have been surveyed.

“We have a great slice of the pie of all aspects of the permitting process when we’re asking those questions,” Lord said.

The county is working on bringing the consultant to the island because he needs to be on-site for about a week to meet with DPW staff and have individual and group conversations. He also has been in direct contact with key staff members, including Pause.

Lord added that the consultant will be making some suggestions for smaller changes that can be done without a big effort.

The consultant’s report is expected by Sept. 15 and Lord said, in response to a question from Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, that the council and community would be updated on the recommendations outlined in the report and how the administration plans to move forward.

“We’re constantly looking at process improvements … ,” Pause said. “What can we tweak? What can we do better? Our consultant is going to help us, I think, a lot in this area because he has a wealth of experience looking at other municipalities, especially in the Pacific Northwest, places that have experienced similar sorts of roll outs of new technology, and what sorts of things can we do to improve our process.”

The interim director provided several statistics about the current status of the permitting system.

Pause said there more than 450,000 permit cases that have been migrated to the new system, not including 7,100 new applications in the past year. Since the EPIC system was launched, 5,900 permits have been issued. There are about 700 permits that are waiting for intake.

There are a little more than 2,100 applications that have been returned and are awaiting resubmittal and about 1,200 permits that are in some stage of review right now. About 13,000 permits with inspections that have been completed.

“The short of it is that there’s a lot of stuff going on in there,” Pause said.

In the past month, the average time for an application once it’s received in EPIC until the intake process is completed is about 30 days. The average time for land use staff to turnaround an application is about three days. Once those two processes are complete, a permit is reviewed by plans examiners. The average time for that review, if there are no corrections or resubmittals, is about 60 days.

“So from the statistics standpoint, it’s all good information,” Pause said. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything. There’s still room for improvement, but I believe there is some progress.”

He added there are always ways to better engage the community, which the department will look into moving forward. There also are a number of ideas, process changes and even some minor tweaks that can be made to software the consultant has suggested.

“We’ve had discussions, so we’re not sitting around waiting for one final report,” Pause said.

One of the largest challenges the department faces when it comes to the permitting system is staffing. Pause said not only are there several positions in the Building Division that need to be filled, including five out of 11 review posts and eight of a total 36 inspector positions, the department also has been hammered by several waves of COVID-19.

“I came on as deputy in May of (2021) and we have not interviewed a plans examiner position or an inspector position since I’ve been here,” he said, adding there are some interviews scheduled this month and Pause has engaged with Human Resources about the open positions. “Having more people in seats will significantly improve our ability to improve on turnaround times,” he said.

Several department employees, mostly clerks, stepped up to fill some of the void and have been willing to help in multiple areas, often working overtime to help improve the process.

“We’ve got awesome clerks,” Pause said. “They are the glue. They do a great job.”

Training those who use the EPIC system also needs some work.

“What we need to do is get a better idea on who’s using what tools,” Pause said. “It’s one thing to develop training information, YouTube videos and Facebook blurbs and all sorts of things. We really need to find out what’s the best way to reach the users in the community (who need) to be able to use the tool.”

Internally, the department also is working to develop checklists for system users so when they submit an application, they can save time by making sure the correct information is provided right away.

Several council members acknowledged the strides DPW has made since EPIC was launched and thanked Pause and his staff for their work.

“You are doing a great job,” Hāmākua Councilwoman Heather Kimball told Pause. “I’ve heard from some of the folks I know in the department that there’s some improvement in the mood and I think that’s due to your leadership.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said he knows the shift to the new permitting system has been difficult, but is glad it happened. He knows the public has been critical and the council also has been pointed.

“However, I do want to say, I was with an architect and a Realtor yesterday and they both commented that they have, from their perspective, seen a substantial improvement,” Richards said. “And that was unsolicited. … So credit where credit is due because things are improving and when the end user is saying, ‘You know, it is getting better. We’re starting to see a little bit of light,’ I needed to pass that along because it’s not all bad. There’s actually good stuff coming forward.”

Pause said the department is doing the best it can with what it has and everybody is pitching in to help with the effort.

“We’re also trying to be forward thinking enough to look at how we can do things better, work smarter, so thank you for your support,” he told the committee.

Pause said in response to a comment by Committee Chairwoman Sue Lee Loy that the department is looking at new and better ways to reach out to the users of the EPIC system and said it needs to do more to listen and hear what they have to say.

“Ultimately, as you are aware, the success of what we’re doing here is based on acceptance,” he said, adding once that is accomplished, the system can thrive. “That’s where we want to get.”

In other business Tuesday, the committee, after approving amendments, also forwarded Bill 120 to the full council level with a favorable recommendation. The measure would amend county code to require all newly constructed “places of public accommodation” with at least 50 parking spaces to install electric vehicle chargers under a tiered schedule that increases the required amount of EV chargers every two years through 2029.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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