Chatham Cautiously Moving Ahead With E-permitting

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning

Chatham has abandoned its problematic online mooring and waiting list renewal system. FILE PHOTO

For a number of years now, local boaters have been able to renew their mooring permits online. While the system has worked, in a limited way, for the public, for staff on the back end of things, it's been a nightmare.

“We have not realized the efficiencies we had hoped for on the staff side,” is how Robert Duncanson, director of the department of natural resources, which includes the harbormaster's department, frames the situation. Harbormaster staff could not talk on the record, but the stories of their frustrations over the mooring and waiting list renewal system are, to say the least, notorious. A blow up over the system was reportedly at the root of the controversial disciplining of Harbormaster Stuart Smith in December 2013.

It's been more than four years since the town was chosen as one of three Cape communities to participate in a pilot project to develop electronic permitting, licenses and inspection programs. To date, the results of the effort are decidedly mixed.

While some functions have been automated and expanded to include web- and mobile-based reporting, others have struggled to adopt to the town's often quirky way of doing things. The most high profile example is the town's mooring permits renewal system, which was off line as much as it was online earlier this season. Complications with that system were tied to the town's numerous mooring areas and its complex method of assigning moorings and fees based on numerous factors.

The biggest successes with the e-permitting program have been in the building department, where inspectors use a smartphone or table app that allows them to complete inspection forms on a job site and upload the information directly to a database accessible by staff. The goal is to have that information available online to contractors and tradespeople, which would effectively give the department 24-hour accessibility, but that has yet to be accomplished.

This year officials plan to implement online permits for the health, shellfish and sticker department during the current fiscal year.

The town this winter implemented one other electronic reporting functions, the “See Click Fix” app that allows residents to report pot holes, overflowing trash cans and other problems.

But true electronic permitting – the ability to renew or obtain a town permit via the internet – remains extremely limited, with mooring permit and waiting list renewals and open burning permits really the only types available. Otherwise, what's currently available to residents seeking to get shellfish permits, transfer station stickers or other town permits online are PDF forms that can be downloaded but must be printed out and either mailed in or presented in person.

Taxes and some fees can be paid online, but there is a service charge that discourages many people from using the function.

Chatham, Nantucket and Yarmouth were initially chosen in 2012 to participate in a pilot e-permitting program under a $500,000 state community innovation grant, overseen by the Cape Cod Commission. While each town had different priorities, the idea was to create a template that could be implemented in other communities, said Kristy Senatori, the commission's deputy director.

“Each community has different needs,” she said. “We're trying to make them more efficient.”

Each town – the program eventually expanded to include six communities, including Harwich – proceeded at their own pace and with aspects of the program that were most important locally. Chatham chose to work on the permitting and inspection functions, and has taken more time to work internally to ensure that the program is successful when it is finally rolled out to the public.

“This isn't an overnight implementation,” Senatori said, “but we're making progress.”

The inspection program is using a program called Accela, which is already in place in a number of communities in Massachusetts, and the platform is used by more than 2,000 municipalities throughout the country, she said. The initial pilot modules involve building, health and licensing, with additional phases to include fire, planning, historic, conservation, public works and other municipal functions.

PeopleForms is the system the town is using for permitting such as mooring and open burning permits. But it seems to have been especially glitchy. This past spring, anyone renewing a mooring permit or a spot on a mooring waiting list found that out the hard way. The harbormaster page on the town site had a message stating that the system is “temporarily unavailable” and urges permit holders to call the department with questions. It was that way periodically throughout the mooring renewal period, requiring that the town amend its mooring regulations to extend the renewal deadline.

There were also glitches with fire department open burning permits. At one point clicking on the permit link brought up a message that the form was “locked by an administrator. Sorry for the inconvenience.” That system is now functioning, although open burn permits are not available in the summer.

Officials say they've worked with PeopleForms to fine-tune their available templates to fit Chatham's needs, said Information Technology Director Craig Rowe. That program also seemed a better fit for the needs of the health department, which is mostly basic permits and renewals, rather than the more complex Accela, said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith. The department is gradually transitioning to the platform, she said.

Rowe allowed that using PeopleForms “has been a challenge on the mooring permit side.” One problem was that staff had to reconcile differences between the online forms and the actual permits, which basically eliminating any savings from efficiency that the e-permitting system was supposed to yield.

But use of the system is increasing, with more than 200 waiting list renewals processed online this year. That's still a drop in the bucket compared to the 1,200 people on mooring waiting lists, and officials hope to increase the numbers. Recognizing the problems they've had with it, they're taking several to meet that goal.

One is streamlining the town's mooring regulations, the complexity of which has made it difficult to shoe-horn off-the-shelf software into the town's system. There are 19 different mooring fields, half a dozen in Stage Harbor alone, each with their own specifications and limitations regarding water depth, boat length and other factors. The recent change regarding third-party leasing of moorings was a step toward simplifying the regulations, Duncanson said, and staff is working to identify more areas that can be streamlined.

Duncanson said officials will also be taking a lot at other mooring management software packages to see if there one that fits better with the town's system. PeopleForms wasn't designed specifically for mooring management, so finding a program that was may be part of the answer.

As frustrating as it's been trying to make an online mooring permit renew system work properly, it has “not been a wasted effort,” Duncanson said, and will eventually lead to the hoped for efficiencies.

The Accela program has had the most success in Chatham. Inspectors are currently using it most of the time, said Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer.

“It has its ups and downs, but once it works, they love it,” Ruffer

The next step is setting up a kiosk in the lobby of the annex where plumbers, electricians, contractors and others can fill out permits and have them go right into the system, eliminating paper permits. Ideally the forms would also be available online, eventually eliminating the need for contractors to travel to the annex.

But that awaits fine-tuning of the program. Officials want there to be no problems once it is opened up, they said, out of concern that if people experience difficulty, it will sour them on using any e-permitting function.

“We know that some will not want to use it, and some will use it routinely,” said Ruffer, but they don't want to jinx the system even before anyone tries it.

The system also allows entry of historical data which can eventually be made accessible to the public. The process of data entry is ongoing.

“We're committed to working out the problems, rather than working around them,” Ruffer said.

According to Finance Director Alix Heilala, since 2012 the town has spent $50,345 on the Acella program and $106,131 on PeopleGIS. Those figures don't include the time town staff has spent working on the programs.