For homeowners who have ever had to pull a city permit to renovate a house or open a business, the process can be complicated and confusing. Now, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are looking for ways to make it faster, simpler and more user-friendly.
The Minneapolis Development Review room, the city's one-stop shop for building permits, feels a bit like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Applicants take a number and wait for a computerized voice to call their turn.
Ben Dunlap, who works for the construction firm Streeter & Associates, has been there six times so far to get a series of approvals for the new downtown factory his company is building for Izzy's Ice Cream. There will be many more visits to come.
"There's too many people involved, and it takes a lot longer than it should," Dunlap said.
Other businesses have given Minneapolis the same message.
"The speed at which they are trying to operate today is far different than it was five years ago, and we have to try to make our machines do a little bit better," City Coordinator Paul Aasen said. "We'll never go as fast as business, but we need to go faster than we're going now."
Aasen says the answer is to reorganize the city's Regulatory Services Department. He's working on a proposal to put business licensing and construction permitting into the department charged with growing businesses in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, environmental review would become part of the Health Department. The intent is to focus the regulators on the goals the city is trying to achieve.
"It's like inspecting a restaurant," Aasen explained. "Are you inspecting to inspect it or are you trying make sure the food is healthy? The downside of having all regulatory activity in a regulatory mode in a regulatory department is you can lose contact, in some cases, with that outcome."
St. Paul is also looking for ways to streamline its regulatory department.
Amy Brendmoen is one of the city council members leading that effort. She's heard numerous complaints from constituents and businesses frustrated with the permitting and inspection process. She also experienced it firsthand this spring, when she wanted to teach her sons about farming and applied for a backyard chicken permit.
Brendmoen got signatures from her neighbors saying they approved of the poultry, but she also needed a separate permit to build a coop for them. The blueprints got the green light, construction commenced, and the final step was an inspection from an Animal Control officer. That's when she learned the hen house was too big for her flock of five chickens.
The officer told Brendmoen she would need to run electricity to the coop, or else the birds would freeze when the weather turned.
"By basically saying that, we just added $1,000 or $2,000 to the scope of the project," Brendmoen said. "Those are things that would be better to know on the front end."
Brendmoen wants the Department of Safety and Inspections to illustrate the permitting process for everything from building a hen house to opening a gas station. Spelling out the steps will avoid unpleasant surprises and lead to happy customers, she said.
"This could be this person's one interaction with city government in 10 years, and wouldn't it be great if they walked away thinking, 'That was great. I feel like I have an ally in City Hall," Brendmoen said.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman set aside $200,000 in his proposed budget to hire a consultant and simplify the city's regulatory systems. "When we're all scrapping for businesses looking for economic development in our cities, it's a way to channel to businesses that you want to work on issues that are important to them," said Council President Kathy Lantry, who has advocated regulatory reform for years.
Many contractors applaud Minneapolis and St. Paul for tackling regulatory reform, but some say they'd rather see the cities pursue flexibility than efficiency.
"They both need to make sure that they don't run down this assembly line: 'Oh, this is project type A. You're going to go to line six, and you're going to be meeting with inspector 324, who's going to go through a checklist of 27 things, and if you fail to meet one of them you will fail," said Michael Anschel, who runs a green building and remodeling business and works extensively in both cities.
Anschel has his own wish list for reform, but he adds that of all the cities he works with in the metro area, the regulatory departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul are his favorites.