Message from the Director: Update on New Permitting Portal

As many of our customers know, our April 30 launch of the Seattle Services Portal, SDCI’s new permitting, complaint, and inspection system, was more challenging that we had expected. We needed to change to the new system because the previous one was extremely out of date and failing. We recognize that the shift to the off-the-shelf system, Accela, is a big change from the highly customized permit system that customers were using. It took us 8 years to develop those customized applications and features for the old system. We’re already looking at ways to bring back some of the most popular functions, but that will take some time.

Since we’ve launched, SDCI has successfully corrected or improved almost 200 issues. Many of these make the system easier to use and address  our customers’ concerns. Highlights of these improvements include:

  • We updated the Public Notices feature (The Land Use Information Bulletin) to include better notice descriptions and a summary report of the current public notices. Customers can now search by project number and create a customized report by publish date.
  • We updated the customer sign-in tool at the Applicant Services Center, which had been slowing down the entire system. The update improved the system performance and response time.
  • We corrected technical issues that caused inspections to be scheduled incorrectly, and fixed issues to make it easier to do inspections in the field.
  • We corrected a problem that was preventing documents from being visible in the Seattle Services Portal.
  • We fixed an automated procedure to show current licensed contractor information from Washington Labor & Industries.
  • We added the ability to pay with trust (escrow) accounts in the Seattle Services Portal.
  • We improved the Seattle Services Portal processing speed so that customers can submit applications more quickly.
  • We updated Phased Construction permits so that they automatically progress to the next step when the applicant pays fees or submits corrected plans.
  • We updated the system to help correct problems with project data converted from our old system.
  • We streamlined the staff dashboard so that they can more easily see their daily assignments, and so they can better monitor critical tasks, such as reviews and permits ready to issue.
  • We created the Issues and Resolutions blog so customers can see some of the items we’re tracking.

 

We will release our next updates on August 21, which will include:

  • A “Next Available Date” tool tip on the appointment calendar pop-up to make it easier to schedule intake appointments.
  • An updated fee payment process for preliminary applications so fees can be paid by someone other than the applicant.

 

We are also maximizing our staff resources to provide even better customer service:

  • We are creating a dedicated customer service team to help customers resolve specific project issues and to answer questions about applications.  Once set up, all SDCI work units will be able to forward customers to this team to get assistance as necessary.
  • We’re holding customer training classes/user feedback sessions to help customers navigate areas where changes we can make are limited.
  • We continue to provide one-on-one assistance to customers whose projects were converted from the old system to the new system with errors or problems. Common issues we can help with include:
    • Adding, removing, or merging contacts on your application. If you are the project applicant but you can’t interact with your application, you may have multiple versions of your contact information in the system. We can merge your contacts to correct that problem.
    • Correcting project process stage errors.
    • Helping you understand your project status.
  • We have dedicated some staff to process the backlog of applications to help the overall permitting process move more quickly.
  • We regularly update the Seattle Services Portal Help Center with articles and helpful tips.
  • We created a How to Respond to Corrections video with step-by-step instructions.

 

We continue to work toward additional improvements. Our partners, Seattle Information Technology, are making improvements daily. We will release updates to the Seattle Services Portal twice a month. While most updates are not visible to the public, they do improve the customer experience and staff’s ability staff to efficiently process applications.

I continue to appreciate your patience as we make the transition to our new system.

Nathan Torgelson
Director

SPU Proposes to Update Charges for Development-Related Services

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) plans to update charges for development-related services on Oct. 1, 2018, pending the adoption of a director’s rule. SPU sets separate charges for specific services the utility performs for individual customers.

As part of SPU’s revised Strategic Business Plan, approved by City Council last year, the utility was directed to update its charges for the installation and connection of new water services (taps), to ensure the charges recover the actual costs associated with providing these services.

To increase predictability, fairness, and transparency to customers, SPU also plans to update separate charges for other development-related services including water main extensions, hydrant services, drainage and wastewater core taps, and others. Updating these charges will ensure that SPU is recovering the full cost and that ratepayers are not subsidizing these individual services.

To update separate charges, SPU will need to adopt a director’s rule. The public can comment on the rule during a formal comment period in August 2018.

These 2018 charge updates include a portion of SPU’s separate charges. A phased approach will be implemented to update the remaining separate charges. Future charge updates will be reviewed on a recurring schedule.

For more information, and to review the draft Director’s Rule, read SPU’s blog article.

 

Equitable Development Initiative Awards $5.5 Million to Community Organizations

On July 5, Mayor Jenny A. Durkan and the City of Seattle announced $5.5 million in awards through the Equitable Development Initiative (EDI), part of the City’s effort to support Seattle’s existing community members and businesses in high displacement risk neighborhoods.

“Seattle is facing an affordability crisis, which has displaced far too many and left behind many of our neighborhoods and businesses,” said Mayor Durkan, who visited the Ethiopian Community in Seattle earlier today. “To tackle these challenges, our City is investing in community organizations who are leading the way in creating true economic vitality and opportunity within Seattle’s most underserved communities.”

The EDI fund, administered by the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), was created to respond to the needs of marginalized populations, reduce disparities, and support access to opportunity in healthy, vibrant communities. The initiative is championed by community organizations concerned about displacement pressures and historical lack of investment that has occurred in communities of color in Seattle.

“Our values call for a Seattle that all communities can call home, and where all residents have access to a positive future,” said Sam Assefa, Director of OPCD. “The community-based organizations EDI invests in supports resiliency in vulnerable areas. Our aim is to improve racial equity and knock down institutional barriers to create a city in which everyone thrives.”

EDI fosters community leadership and supports organizations to promote equitable access to jobs, education and child care, outdoor space and recreation, cultural expression, healthy food, and other community needs and amenities. These new partnerships are designed to support leadership and build capacity building among the most historically marginalized groups in Seattle, sharing in decision-making and power, and working towards racial equity outcomes that allows all communities to thrive.

The following community-based organizations working in Seattle on anti-displacement strategies and economic development opportunities have been selected:

  • African Women Business Alliance — $75,000 for capacity building to explore a permanent home for the Alliance and to support economic development of women-owned businesses.
  • Africatown — $1,075,000 for capacity-building and development expenses to include affordable commercial space to the Midtown affordable housing project.
  • Chief Seattle Club — $925,000 for capacity-building, project development, and construction of affordable housing, healthcare, and art gallery space serving the American Indian/Alaska Native community.
  • Filipino Community of Seattle — $1,000,000 for capacity building, pre-development, and construction of senior housing, technical learning center, and community gathering space.
  • Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition — $75,000 for capacity building to support a multi-use project that includes affordable housing, childcare, and community space.
  • United Indians of All Tribes — $1,075,000 for capacity building and development of the Northwest Native Canoe Center on Lake Union and rehabilitation of Daybreak Star Center.

Three additional applicants – Ethiopian Community in Seattle, West African Community Center, and Black and Tan Hall – have also been selected to support capacity building and project development needs. The three projects will receive funding from the remaining $460,000, with specific contract amounts for each project to be determined later.

One additional project will receive funding for acquisition of an existing childcare and community center. Details will be available after the conclusion of an ongoing real estate transaction.

Several projects are likely to receive additional EDI awards in the future.

Since November 2016, OPCD and partner departments, including Office of Economic Development (OED), Office of Housing (OH), Department of Neighborhoods (DON), Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS), and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), have been coordinating the administration of the EDI Fund.

The EDI Fund was established with $16 million from the sale of the Civic Square property adjacent to Seattle City Hall. The fund also receives $430,000 in annual funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant.

EDI awards are intended to complement existing funding sources and address gaps identified by communities in the existing resources available to them. Engagement with partner organizations will involve a multi-year process of building capacity, developing a project, and overseeing implementation and reporting.

OPCD and partner departments established an Interim Advisory Board (IAB) to help guide the EDI and to provide feedback and approval of the criteria and decision-making processes for the fund. The IAB provided recommendations to the city on the funding decisions announced today.

Projects were evaluated on their ability to positively impact several equity drivers, that lead to racial equity outcomes including:

  • Promoting economic opportunity through education, job training, and enhancing community cultural anchors.
  • Helping marginalized populations, businesses, and community organizations stay in their neighborhoods.
  • Enhancing health outcomes, access to healthy, culturally relevant food, and supporting safe environments.

 

Successful applicants demonstrated a deep relationship with the community they are seeking to serve and feature an inclusive community process, with community members serving in their organizational leadership.

Information about the next round of EDI funding will be released in early 2019.

Message from SDCI’s Director

The recent launch of our new permitting, complaint, and inspection software did not meet our expectations for effectiveness and service. Customers were initially unable to access or use the system and had trouble contacting us for help.  We took immediate steps to correct these issues, working with our partners in Seattle Information Technology (Seattle IT) to stabilize the system and add resources to the response teams. We continue to identify and correct other issues. Still, we know that this rocky roll-out had a negative impact on our customers and the public and I am very sorry about that. We’re working hard to make this right.

Many of you have asked why we changed systems in the first place, noting that our new system doesn’t do many of the things the old system did. This was a difficult choice to make, but I believe it was the correct call. Our old system was extremely out of date, no longer supported by the vendor, and failing. Our collection of custom applications that made the system more efficient were difficult to update and maintain. We also wanted to be part of a City-wide platform with more integrated services and a single interface for customers. We wanted better automation and greater process efficiencies, and better tracking. For those and other reasons, we chose a flexible, off-the-shelf system that had most of our desired functions and that could be improved over time. Right now, we’re prioritizing system enhancements that we’ll implement over the next several months.

The new system is a big change for our customers and for staff. There are several ways for customers to get help using the new system. The Seattle Services Portal has a robust Help Center that we update with new articles based on the questions you ask and the feedback you provide. We’ll be adding short videos on selected topics and we’ve just recently posted a robust FAQ. If you still need help, see our list of contacts.

Our staff continue to work hard to meet your expectations for timely and effective service. In addition to the new software, we continue to experience record high demand for permits. Our production timelines have extended beyond normal since the system launch, but we’re making progress.

I appreciate your patience as we make the transition to our new system. While the initial launch was rocky, I’m committed to finding solutions to improve the system to better serve our customers and the public.

Nathan Torgelson
SDCI Director

Changes to Design Review Now in Effect

On July 1, many of the Design Review program changes that were adopted in Ordinance 125429, in October 2017, went into effect. The changes included:

  • New requirements for early community outreach for all projects going through Design Review
  • Changes to the thresholds that determine which projects are required to go through Design Review
  • The type of Design Review that would be required

 

SDCI and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON) also published a final joint Director’s Rule that expands on the new community outreach requirement.

Information Sessions

We will be hosting two Reddit “Ask Me Anything” sessions online:

  • July 10, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
  • August 14, 8:00 – 9:00 a.m.

Find us on Reddit’s AMA board day-of, or under DON’s username SEA_Neighborhoods.

Questions?

For questions about how the new requirements may impact a specific development project, please contact:

Lisa Rutzick, SDCI
(206) 386-9049
lisa.rutzick@seattle.gov

 

For questions about the requirements for early community outreach, please contact:

Danielle Friedman, DON
DREarlyOutreach@seattle.gov