State officials are taking steps meant to ease an acute backlog in requested reviews of commercial-construction plans after delays became a common subject of complaint this past building season.
In a letter from late last week, Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services Secretary-designee Dawn Crim laid out a number of policy changes the agency is making in response to the situation. Meanwhile, the delays are prompting various GOP lawmakers to begin questioning Crim’s handling of the department.
The backlog has developed for a number of reasons. The U.S’s hot economy has stoked demand for new construction projects. And its tight labor market has hindered the department’s attempts to hire for unfilled plan-review positions.
In a letter sent on Friday, Crim proposed various ways to reduce backlog. The DSPS plans, for instance, to require contractors pay fees up-front, submit only complete building plans for review and prohibit builders from making duplicate appointments with staff employees. Separately, legislation now under draft promises further changes.
“When I looked closely at the existing plan review processes, I saw opportunity to eliminate some practices that do not optimize staff resources and that cause delays for our customers,” Crim said in a statement. “These changes will help us work more efficiently and more quickly serve our customers without compromising safety.”
The DSPS has been under pressure for months from lawmakers and contractors to do something about the backlog. A number of GOP Senators — including Andre Jacque, of DePere, and Chris Kapenga, of Delefield — have sent letters to the department raising questions about the delays.
But the situation didn’t suddenly develop during Crim’s time at the DSPS. Similar delays were complained of in previous administrations, including former Gov. Scott Walker’s. The current backlog nonetheless threatens Crim’s nomination.
Republican lawmakers have shown recently that they are willing to reject Evers’ appointments. In November, GOP Senators voted against the nomination of Agriculture Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff after faulting him for his criticisms of top GOP officials for not releasing money meant to help improve farmers’ mental health. The state’s Republican-controlled Senate has yet to confirm other Evers cabinet picks, including Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson.
Crim said the DSPS’s goal is to have the plan-review backlog whittled down before next year’s construction season heats up. The changes generally call for tightening up the standards used to determine when plans are ready to be submitted to the agency for review. One policy requires contractors to pay fees before their plans can be considered complete. Another calls on DSPS staff employees to make sure plans are ready to be discussed at meetings by requiring reviews 48 hours in advance. If anything is found to be missing, state officials will have to reject the document, require contractors or architects to submit their plans again and cancel related meetings.
The department also plans to automatically cancel duplicate appointments made with state employees for the same set of plans. And the DSPS will have the option to temporarily suspend electronic scheduling for those who frequently make duplicate appointments.
Steve Klessig, vice president of architecture and engineering at contractor Keller, said the backlog has been a cause of considerable frustration at a time when contractors have struggled to keep up with a steep demand for new construction. Ultimately, he said, the DSPS has taken the situation seriously. Crim, Klessig added, has been “sincere” about finding a solution.
Klessig added that the requirement that plans be complete before being submitted for review may come as a shock to some contractors.
“May be painful medicine to take, but I think it’s only fair and reasonable,” he said. “In the end, we’re hurting ourselves and we’re hurting our industry.”
Lawmakers are separately are working on further remedies. Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, is working on legislation with help of the DSPS, contractors and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, a group that represents mostly non-union firms.
Angela Roidt, a spokeswoman for Roth, said two policy proposals are up for discussion. One would prevent contractors from being able to choose a particular plan reviewer to look at their projects, as they can now. Another would make a fee builders pay to submit plans no longer be refundable, or at least only partially refundable.
Other changes could exempt some projects from plan reviews entirely. One possibility concerns what sorts of buildings are subject to reviews. Under current law, buildings with more than 15 plumbing fixtures are subject to DSPS review. A change being discussed would increase that figure to 25.
John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs at the ABC of Wisconsin, said lawmakers are trying to make sure the bill gets approved in what’s expected to be a short legislative session. He said he’s been encouraged by the department’s responses but won’t know if the recently approved and proposed policy changes are having their intended effect until contractors get to work in earnest this summer.
“I really appreciate what Secretary-designee Crim has done to address this problem,” Schulze said. “It predated her, but she seems committed to fixing it.”Follow @natebeck9