As the Department of Safety and Professional Services continues to struggle to work its way through a persistent backlog of requests for commercial-plan reviews, new attention has been called to staffing at the regulatory agency.
Over the past 10 years, the number of people working at the DSPS has been trimmed by a third. The department now employs 18 full-time employees with authority to do the building-plan reviews. It also has a vacancy in its position for section chief.
In the DSPS’s most recent budget, Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the department, Dawn Crim, requested 20 new positions and ultimately received six. Crim, who has yet to be confirmed as secretary of the DSPS by the state Senate, said new employees have been hired but have not been able so far to break the backlog.
“The trouble has been, we’re trying to solve systemic issues with overtime and (limited-time employees) and what we’re finding is those are not adequate solutions,” Crim said. “We really do need the staffing.”
Crim said steps such as adding overtime and LTE hours haven’t made much of a difference. The agency paid $116,393.83 in overtime wages in 2019, enough for just under 2,800 hours of overtime.
John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, said one problem is that people who are qualified to perform these sorts of reviews are simply “tough to find and tough to keep.” He noted that both the Walker and Evers administrations have had trouble filling open positions for reviewers.
Delays were also common before Crim took office, although they have become worse in recent years.
“I give her credit that she’s tried to address it systemically, rather than just throwing overtime at it,” Schulze said.
The number of plans being reviewed by the DSPS has declined in the past two years after rising steadily from 2011 to 2017. In 2011, for instance, 6,441 plans were reviewed. By 2017, the number had increased to 8,845. But it fell in 2018, to 8,103, and again in 2019, to 7,408.
At the same time, the agency has been taking longer to complete reviews, going from 22 days on average in the first quarter of 2017 to 38 days in the first quarter of 2018. In Crim’s time in office, the average review time has gone from 43 days in the first quarter of 2019 to 35 days in the second quarter and then back up to 46 days in the third quarter.
In a recent interview, Crim said the DSPS has been working to discover flaws in plan-review procedures and then put remedies in place.
“We’ve identified some process improvements that we’re implementing now,” she said. “I believe they will make a difference for our customers and our staff.”
Crim has said the DSPS’s goal is to have the plan-review backlog whittled down before next year’s construction season heats up. The changes she has put in place so for generally call for tightening up the standards used to decide when plans are ready to be submitted to the agency for review.
One policy, for instance, 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.
Schulze says requiring plans to be finished earlier should help “clear out” the backlog of proposals. He’d also like to see contractors have a monetary incentive to make sure that whatever plans they are submitting are in fact ready for review.
Schulze noted that construction companies can now get back their plan-review fees if they withdraw a proposal. If that refund amount were instead reduced to half of the original fee, he said, contractors would think twice before inundating the DSPS with plans.
The amounts charged vary depending on the type and size of whatever project is up for review. The cost of submitting new plans requires a $100. “Miscellaneous plans” for foundations, exhaust systems and interior bleachers cost $250. A full 15,000-square-foot building — including building plans, HVAC, fire alarms and suppression — would cost $1,750, according to state statute.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville, says the delays could perhaps be curtailed by shifting plan oversight to local building inspectors, taking some of the pressure off the DSPS. He also suggested taking steps to reduce the reviews needed for any given project.
In the meantime, Crim says agency staff have drawn up and distributed a review checklist “so everyone is on the same page about plan completeness.”
The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.