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Development software upgrade moved to July

The installation of a software upgrade as part of the city’s and county’s building development process reform has been delayed until July, or four months later than scheduled, Mecklenburg County’s information technology manager said Tuesday.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are working on improvements to online tools that they hope will improve services for development companies during the permitting and inspection process. Because the region is experiencing a boom in construction, including 7th Street Progression Partners LLC's 95-unit project in Elizabeth, above, regulators and developers hope improvements will speed up and simplify the process. Photo by David Dykes

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are working on improvements to online tools that they hope will improve services for development companies during the permitting and inspection process. Because the region is experiencing a boom in construction, including 7th Street Progression Partners LLC’s 95-unit project in Elizabeth, above, regulators and developers hope improvements will speed up and simplify the process. Photo by David Dykes

Erica Nesbitt, the county’s IT manager, told the Mecklenburg County Building Development Commission that the delivery date for Project Winchester, as it is known, has been moved from March to the weekend of July 22.

“In analyzing the product against our environment, we’ve determined that we need to adjust the timeline to ensure the appropriate quality measures, to ensure that we deliver a quality product and that we have fewer post-production issues,” she said.

One driver behind the delay is the complexity of the county’s processes and the county’s position as the vendor’s largest installation of the Winchester system, Nesbitt said.

“We have a lot of integration,” she said. “We have 29 interfaces to other applications. We have about 2,500 web presentations that would be in the product.

“It’s a new technology from the vendor so we want to ensure that we put the appropriate steps in and due diligence to ensure that we deliver a quality product.”

Dave Simpson, CEO of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, said the building development process is “vital to the success of the construction industry” and “anything that is done to expedite and streamline this ongoing process will be a win-win for the county, taxpayers and the construction industry.”

Accelerating the design and construction process is needed “at a time when things are picking up very significantly,” he said.

Greater need for speed

Charlotte’s economy has been on a roll the past two years, with employment rising at a healthy 2.6

percent year-over-year rate and the metropolitan area’s population adding more than 40,000 residents in 2014 and 2015, according to Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Employment gains continue to be “extraordinarily broad based” across most key industries, with gains in financial services, professional services and transportation and warehousing helping drive income growth and support growth in construction, retail trade and the hospitality sector, Vitner said.

“The Charlotte metropolitan area, particularly the city’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods,

has become a leading destination for young college-educated workers relocating from other parts of the country,” Vitner said.

The influx of millennials has helped support a wave of apartment building, with 3,200 new units completed in 2015, Vitner said, citing data from REIS.

The county’s vendor, Computronix, is installing a new version of POSSE, which stands for public one-stop service engine. It is the main software program for permitting and inspections. Winchester is a new version of POSSE.

The county uses an electronic land-development management web application to help developers and staff with submission of civil drawings and plans for a project, applications, forms and accompanying documents.

It also allows online tracking of the development process and electronic notifications to developers with comments and plan mark-ups.

Nesbitt said there will be “a huge impact” from installing the Winchester system.

The upgrade will make it easier for customers to navigate POSSE and use related customer tools, county officials said. It will include automatic search-field indexing and wildcard searches based on partial data like a project name.

Implementing changes

Gartner Inc., a global information technology research firm, was hired in 2014 for $325,000 to provide recommendations on how to improve building development processes after the county’s Land Use and Environmental Services Agency received complaints about its performance. Transparency and collaboration, streamlined online services, and improved customer service could go a long way toward improving the city’s and county’s building development processes, according to a report provided by Gartner.

Gartner interviewed customers, such as homeowners, builders, architects, engineers and developers, as well as city and county staff members, to determine which building development processes are done well and which are not.

Customers said there was a lack of collaboration between the city and county, and that they are at times unaware of which services the county handles, which services the city handles, and which services are shared.

The city, through the engineering and property management and planning departments, handles the land portion of a development project. That would include plan review and inspection of subdivision and commercial land development in accordance with local ordinances, but not actual construction of buildings.

The building construction plan review and inspections fall to the county’s Land Use and Environmental Services Agency, which oversees the county’s code enforcement department.

For a project in the city of Charlotte, that means the city is responsible for the horizontal, or land portion, and the county for the vertical, or building portion.

One problem cited in the Gartner report was the difficulty created by using multiple software applications to complete tasks.

Customers said it causes confusion, and city and county employees said it creates a “drag on productivity” and a “lack of accountability,” and that it negatively affects customer service.

“Despite (the) use of leading products and extensive functionality to support development services, the current systems utilized do not provide easy access to information or status updates, and do not ‘talk’ to each other,” Gartner said in its report.

The county, city and towns collaborate closely in the building and development process, but each has separate areas of oversight.

A variety of online tools, or web applications, exist to help customers manage their projects. Some of that technology is shared by municipal and county agencies, but not all.

The existing system is complex, county officials say, as each government entity uses different software, processes and procedures.

For example, the city uses Accela to record permits, plan reviews and inspections, and the county uses POSSE to record permits and inspections.

Gartner suggested the city and county either consolidate or integrate software and applications that offer the same services to cut out overlapping and redundant functions.

The Gartner report also recommended a “single portal,” one place where a customer can monitor and manage their projects at one site regardless of which governmental entity has oversight responsibility.

Plans for a single portal solution are being evaluated by a committee of city and county representatives.

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