Building permit applications pile up in EPIC system

  • Ashley Kierkiewicz

  • Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder

  • Zendo Kern

  • Ikaika Rodenhurst

  • Hawaii County logo

A backlog in building permits was expected, but it’s worse than contractors suspected — and the county previously reported — in the transition to an online permitting system for two county departments.

As of last week, only 110 permits of the 1,700 permit applications received since the system went live in July have been issued and there’s another 1,500 pending permit applications that were submitted prior to the new system going live, Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst told the County Council Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit at a Tuesday briefing.

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Permits were issued for 554 of the earlier permit applications in August and September, he said.

Contractors raised the alarm last month, alerting county officials and the newspaper that something was amiss. A county spokeswoman told the newspaper at the time that the department had addressed “the sheer volume of permits and technical workflow issues.”

The new Energov program integrates data from property records, zoning, critical habitat, infrastructure like sewer, contractor licenses, building and parcel designs and much more into a single cloud-based system that will allow inspectors from multiple departments to work on a permit application simultaneously, rather than shuffling paper from one desk to another.

The county budgeted $15 million for the transition to the software dubbed “EPIC” short for Electronic Processing and Information Center.

“EPIC launched in July and since then we have been processing permits, we have been issuing permits and we have been battling transition issues with legacy into EPIC as well as IT issues in the EPIC system which is expected in any kind of it update,” Rodenhurst said. “It has created a lot of setbacks in how we do our work in the Building Division. … It’s kind of hard to expect what you don’t expect. … We’re operating as best we can making workarounds while we address these IT issues.”

Rodenhurst said his department has created a web form for requests for assistance from contractors, with a goal of getting back to them within two business days. That takes some of the pressure off the telephone staff and makes the process more efficient, he said.

“Our staff is working tremendously hard and sometimes the community doesn’t see that and they just see that their permit isn’t getting the attention that they believe it deserves and so sometimes they take it out on our staff.,” Rodenhurst said. “I would ask the community not to take it out on the staff. If you’re going to be mad at someone, be mad at me. Don’t be mad at my staff.”

Contractors say the county needs to take the problem seriously.

“Bottom line is, if the County of Hawaii was looking for a way to hamstring the construction industry,they have successfully done so … no permits being issued, inspectors directed not to conduct courtesy inspections … and so far no relief in sight,” Jan Weber, a Kona project engineer for Calvin’s Plumbing Inc., said in written testimony.”Construction is the one industry that has remained strong throughout the pandemic of the past 18 months … yet more and more companies are reaching a point that without the necessary permits, their work is going to come to a halt … and with no work, construction personnel will find themselves unemployed until such time the COH ‘works out the glitches’and gets permitting back on track.”

Council members were sympathetic.

“We have to do better — we have to,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who asked for the update. “I’m very concerned to hear the same response I know they’re getting, which is, ‘we’re working on a resolution.’ Of course we are. We have to. But in this case government … we really have to kick in high gear right now and get a solution for our contractors so they can get these permit and start rolling.”

Puna Council-woman Ashley Kier-kiewicz said everyone knew there would be startup glitches, but communication was key.

“This just sucks all around. Sucks for the county, sucks for the community,” Kierkiewicz said. “Folks just need this consistency — they need to know when.”

Solar and photovoltaic contractors have been among the most vocal expressing their concerns. There hasn’t been a single PV or solar water permit issued in the 12 weeks since the EPIC system went live, they said. Solar association representatives urged the county to create a “Band-Aid” or workaround until the system gets caught up. The Building Division also needs to communicate better with contractors awaiting permits, they said.

“We need the building permit process to work, to be predictable ,” said Charlie Jeffries, regional director of operations for Sunrun Solar, the island’s largest solar installer. “An unpredictable work schedule for our team members and Big Island residents also means an unpredictable income for them and their families in an already tough time that we’re going through.”

Rodenhurst said there were 217 PV permits currently in the system, but he denied that there have been no PV permits issued in the past three months.

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Once Public Works gets is backlog cleared, the next stop for many permits is the Planning Department, where Director Zendo Kern said his staff is trained and ready.

“We anticipated it to be painful and it is. It sucks,” Kern said. “There’s no lack of effort, no lack of will, no lack of wanting this to be good. … The good thing is the system is pretty darn decent. We just have to keep pushing forward.”