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DSPS takes down public calendar used to track plan review backlog

Even as the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services remains under pressure to speed its processing of commercial-building plans, it has removed from its website a public calendar showing the extent of its review backlog.

Up until recently, the DSPS had published a calendar providing estimates of how long agency staff employees needed to review commercial-building plans. During last year’s busy construction season, for instance, the site had shown that reviews of construction documents often took months.

Various lawmakers and industry officials complained that was too long and were using the online calendar to track the DSPS’ progress toward providing faster reviews. Many of those same people are now bemoaning the system’s absence.

“The decision undermines the ability of the Legislature and the public to hold Secretary-designee (Dawn) Crim accountable for her stated goal of accomplishing a four-week turnaround on permit reviews,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, a critic of DSPS’ plan-review backlog. “In light of the persistent failures of the department in this area, I believe Secretary-designee Crim owes timely answers to contractors, lawmakers and the public as to why the calendar was abruptly removed from the department’s website.”

Jennifer Garrett, a DSPS spokeswoman, said the department no longer allows contractors to submit plans online but rather requires them to submit plans manually, a change meant to speed up reviews. She said the DSPS’s calendar was removed from its website several months ago as part of a switch to a manual scheduling system.

Garrett said the department’s calendar was never intended to give a precise idea of how long the agency would need to review commercial-building plans, only rough estimates. She said she was unsure if the department planned to publish the calendar again on its website.

“Actual wait times would be different from what could be determined by a single visit to the calendar at any point in time due to unexpected openings, such as those from projects unexpectedly cancelled or other projects that were scheduled but not ready for review,” Garrett said.

So far this year, the department has seen “promising results” in its work to reduce wait times, Garrett said. Plumbing-plan reviews now take about three weeks, she said, and reviews for commercial building plans are “closer to five,” she said.

Garret said the DSPS’ goal is to have reviews completed within six weeks or less.

“We recognize that construction projects are complex and scheduling them can be as well,” she said. “That is why we want our customers to know what they can expect from us: We will turn around reviews for complete plan submissions in six weeks or less.”

Responding to critics, the DSPS made a number of policy changes earlier this year to speed up plan reviews. In general, these changes tightened the criteria the DSPS uses to determine when plans are ready to be submitted. They, for instance, required contractors to pay fees before their plans could be considered complete and called for plans to be completed at least 48 hours before the holding of any official meeting at which they are to be taking up. DSPS said that only a third of the plans submitted to the department in the third quarter of 2019 were found ready for review.

Another change was meant to combat some contractors’ practice of making more than one request for the review of the same set of plans. As the review backlog grew in recent months, more and more companies had taken to making duplicate review appointments.

The DSPS now automatically cancels appointments that have been made more than once for the same set of plans.

Separately, some lawmakers had pushed for further change in a bill that utlimately failed to pass last legislative session. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Roger Roth, a Republican from Appleton, would have exempted some projects from the plan-review process entirely. Only projects with more than 25 plumbing fixtures, for instance, would be subject to review, up from current threshold of 15.

Roth was unable to comment by press time Friday. Angela Roidt, a spokeswoman for the senator, said he was “not made aware” during meetings with DSPS Secretary-designee Crim earlier this year why the department had removed its review calendar from its website.

John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, a trade group that worked on Roth’s bill, said he continues to hear complaints about plan-review delays. He said the ABC has had productive discussions with Crim about the situation but said more needs to be done to ensure contractors can make the most of the current construction season.

“We acknowledge that COVID-19 has really shifted everybody’s focus, and rightly so,” he said. “We’d really like to get a solution before winter comes.”

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