The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services released a report Wednesday touting progress it has made in working through a backlog of plan reviews that had left contractors sometimes waiting months for the agency to sign off on construction projects.
The agency said so far this year it has been able to turn around plumbing and commercial building plans in five weeks on average, a sharp improvement from last year, when companies often had to wait two months or more to secure approval from the agency.
DSPS Secretary-designee Dawn Crim said in an interview that the department has engaged in an intensive realignment of its plan-review process after industry officials, contractors and lawmakers complained that long wait times for plan reviews had re-emerged in her time at the agency. Still, the agency continues to track the progress of plan reviews, and is weighing further changes to improve reviews, she said.
“(Plan review) is quicker and more safe than it has been in many years prior,” Crim said.
Long delays in commercial-plan reviews are not isolated to Crim’s tie at DSPS. At various times during the past several years, and under both Republican and Democratic governors, the agency has struggled to keep up with examining construction plans — particularly during busy building seasons.
Under pressure from lawmakers and the public, the department earlier this year carried out a number of internal policy changes meant to speed up plan reviews.
PLAN REVIEW PROGRESS
The department, for instance, started requiring contractors to submit plans electronically, a mandate that Crim said is more efficient than reviewing paper plans. That switch was unexpectedly aided by the coronavirus outbreak, which forced contractors to file electronic plans to comply with social-distancing requirements.
The agency also required contractors to submit plans that are fully complete before reviewers would consider them, a change that Crim said was central to the progress the agency reported Wednesday.
The change has broadly shifted the start of the state’s plan review process. Contractors last year would often submit incomplete plans to get in DSPS’ plan review schedule, then finish them up before a meeting with a plan reviewer.
“What we determined was we were receiving a high number of incomplete claims,” Crim said. “We realized there was a lot of back-and-forth to get to plan completeness.”
The agency said so far this year it has been able to greatly reduce the time it takes to review a commercial building plan, despite receiving a greater number of plans than usual.
The agency received 6,215 plan applications in the first and second quarters of 2019 and often needed more than two months to review them. This year, the department says it’s turning around plans in less than five weeks on average, despite receiving more than 500 more plan review applications during the same period this year.
On average, the department returned plumbing reviews in 24 days in the first quarter of this year and 17 days in the second quarter. For building plans, reviewers completed plans in 38 days on average in the first quarter, and 25 days in the second quarter.
But although the department has seen improvements in plumbing and commercial plan reviews, it’s still behind in other work. The DSPS, for instance, has needed 10 weeks on average to review plans for fire suppression projects — a relatively small part of the plans the agency looks at.
DSPS’ report says the agency needs more staff employees and resources.
The department’s requirement that plans be finished before it can review them hasn’t been universally welcomed in all corners of the industry, said Jeff Beiriger, executive director of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors’ Association of Wisconsin.
The requirement means plumbing contractors must have their plans finished three weeks or more in advance of a review, and makes getting approval for revisions harder, he said.
Beiriger said, however, that it’s clear that the agency has improved its plan-review process from a year ago.
“(DSPS) continues to listen, they continue to work with us. They’ve got ideas to make improvements,” he said. “The main thing is the industry is in the process of adaptation. That’s part of the growing pains.”
Beiriger said he’d like to see DSPS tweak its policies to allow contractors to make small changes to plans once they’ve submitted them to the agency, rather than scrapping the plans and starting over.
Crim, however, said too much flexibility could cause a backlog to re-emerge.
“What we’re trying to prevent is information that isn’t complete on the front end,” she said.
As the department adopted policy changes in response to the plan-review backlog last year, various lawmakers and trade groups — namely the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin — pushed a bill that would have exempted a certain number of projects from the plan review process entirely.
Under the bill, only projects with more than 25 plumbing fixtures, for instance, would have been subject to review, up from current threshold of 15. The bill, however, failed to pass last session, and the Legislature is unlikely to meet again this year to take it up.
The department is pushing legislative changes of its own. Crim said DSPS would like more leeway to speed up the plan review process. One recommendation calls for a statutory change to require contractors to submit plans electronically.
John Schulze, director of legal and government affairs for ABC of Wisconsin, said the organization’s goal remains to see last year’s backlog of plan reviews go away — however that happens.
“The benefit of this problem is that everyone agrees with the problem,” he said. “So the benefit is that no one is really married to a solution. Everyone’s goal is to shorten the backlog.”Follow @natebeck9