City of Tucson Planning and Development Services (PDSD) has been working for more than two years to move our application submittals and other customer services online to make it easier for our customers to do business with us, modernize our processes, and improve review turnaround times and other services our customers rely on. So when Mayor Regina Romero announced on March 17 that all City of Tucson facilities would be closed to the public in order to protect public health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had an existing framework for online operations to build on.
Thanks to these efforts to transition to online operations preceding the current crisis, while our physical offices are currently closed to the public, Planning and Development Services is still open for business.
All PDSD staff are now working remotely to initialize and process permits, review plans, perform remote video inspections, respond to questions, and conduct business. This protects the health of our staff as well as our customers and the broader community.
Customers are able to submit applications online using a Filedrop. The applications are sorted and routed to the appropriate team for review. Priority is given to utility permits and other health and life safety related requests. Customers can also pay their application fees online through an online payment portal.
Traditional counter review in the office has moved to a ‘virtual service counter' which allows customers to join an online queue and receive a phone call from staff when their turn is up. Staff can view the plans electronically and conduct the review with the customer over the phone.
Inspections are being done almost entirely through the use of Remote Video Inspections. The Remote Video Inspection service uses a video call on a 4G smartphone or tablet to connect customers at a construction site with a City inspector. Customers submit requests for an inspection online, then an inspector will call the morning of your inspection, at the phone number provided, to establish an appointment time.
As public gatherings are currently prohibited, applications that require review by the Planning Commission, Zoning Examiner, or another public body were on hold for most of March and April. Certain public boards and commissions are now able to meet virtually, so long as they do so in a way that does not create a public gathering. PDSD will begin holding virtual public hearings in May. Notices for these hearings will include instructions on how to access the online meeting. Members of the public will be able to submit comments online in advance or during the hearing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered major economic shocks worldwide. As a government entity, PDSD is not immune from these effects. While we take in permit fees and other fees for the work we do, we are also supported through the City's general fund. Unfortunately, PDSD has lost most of its contract workforce as the City seeks to reduce costs in anticipation of steep revenue declines. This means that turnaround times may be longer for certain applications. We are currently working through a backlog in permit applications. Please be patient as we cross-train staff on new processes and focus our current staff resources on our community's most pressing needs.
During this time, PDSD aims to support continued development activity and our region’s economic recovery. Over the past year, the City has been conducting analysis to evaluate new impact fees for the coming years. Based on the current economic climate and likely recession, staff have recommended that these fees remain stable and in some cases see modest reductions rather than impose an increase at this time.
In support of local businesses, many of whom have changed their hours or shifted to take-out models and need signage to alert customers to these changes, or just let the public know they are still open, Planning and Development Services has waived the requirements for banner and a-frame sign permits. Fees have also been waived for banner and a-frame renewals. Installation requirements and restrictions for these signs are still applicable.
What’s in store once we are able to open up to the public again? The current office closure has accelerated our move to online operations. Expect more services to be available online in the long-term. We expect the desires and needs of our customers to shift as well, as more people become comfortable with video calls, virtual meetings and other online tools. We aim to keep pace with our customer’s demands by continuing to hone our use of the latest technology. PDSD is on track to launch a new permit system in the next year, which will make it easier for customers to submit applications online, track their application status, and communicate with staff processing their request.
This unprecedented crisis drives home that we are all in this together. PDSD has helped our community recover from previous economic crashes and this time is no different. We are already collaborating with other City departments and community partners to identify strategies that will support a safe, healthy return to business and growth of our economy. Please feel free to reach out to us with suggestions or ideas on how we can better serve our community at this time.
As this situation is constantly evolving, please continue to check our website for the latest service updates.
(as published in the May 2020 Trend Report)