An interview with Dana Winters, a permitting supervisor in the Development Services Department with Manatee County in Florida.
Accela: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Dana. We’d like to learn more from you about Manatee County’s decision to move operations online and how that has helped you navigate some challenging times, from the pandemic to the recent hurricane season.
Dana: Of course, happy to share. For context, in early 2018, the County transformed its property inspection processes with the help of Accela’s planning and permitting solutions to automate and streamline inspections. We’ve always reaped the benefits of being online since going live. It was a struggle at first getting customers, contractors and homeowners familiar with our new process but fortunately we had enough training to be able to get everyone up to speed fairly quickly.
During COVID, the day we found out we were closing the office, we were all packed up by 2 p.m. and went home. For almost a month, nobody knew that we were not in the office. We brought phones home, never missed a phone call and were able to keep business as usual. We worked remote for a couple of months, and then we slowly started to bring people back into the office, in groups, so it was never everybody in at once. Fortunately, we had all the documentation of working remotely set up so everything worked really smoothly when people were out of the office—we never skipped a beat or lost a day and everyone became very comfortable working on computers to do their jobs.
Accela: Can you tell us more about how you were able to process permits through Accela while being fully remote during COVID?
Dana: When I started almost six years ago, we were doing 2500 maximum permits a month of all types, sometimes less, sometimes maybe a little more. Right after COVID hit, we were doing our maximum, we were hitting 4500 or more. I think our greatest was 4700 and our numbers are staying high. It’s slowed down recently, but by slowing down I mean this last month we did 3200. And so that’s slow for us. I’m not going to complain.
Accela: What about sharing data with other departments? Are you doing that digitally as well?
Dana: Yes, almost all our departments in Manatee County. Building and Planning Divisions have multiple reviewers on each application. We utilized ePermitHub and they use the digital plan room for zoning, building review, fire review, flood review, schoolboard, health department, utilities, public works, affordable housing, economic development, property management, and natural resources.
Accela: That’s great. How did you do all that before Accela?
Dana: I remember before Accela and how it was explained to me when I was hired, ‘That’s how it is.’ That was for permitting and licensing at the time. So we would have a customer literally sit with us to register and apply for a permit. They could be sitting with us for an hour, maybe two, or they would come in with a stack of 15 permits and we’d have to process all 15 of them while they sat in front of us. And now, with Accela, customers can sit at home or sit at the beach and we process them when their request comes in to the system. We don’t have to have them sitting there in front of us.
With Accela, we can also easily determine if it’s the correct permit type, the correct square footage, and then we add the fees and they get an email notification to pay. So all departments can review it at the same time with the digital plan room. We can do review cycles and send out notifications if they have their revisions that are required. They respond to those revisions. And then it comes back to all reviewers to get to answer those issues. It’s more of everything getting done at once instead of waiting for the applicant to drive the plans to the fire department and then having to stop by the utilities department, and then we’re reviewing ours, and then we have to get the documents in or sent over from the fire department saying that they’re approving it.
Accela: That sounds much more efficient! What is the benefit of that kind of system for your residents?
Dana: It’s an all-in-one package. It’s no longer having to go to every department to do what they needed to do. They go into Accela and the Accela system does it for them. They’re not having to drive all over town to get their sign offs, and they get their emails to know when they get the needed revisions and when they need fees paid.
It probably saves everybody thousands of miles, tons of money on gas, and tons of time that they could be doing something else.
Accela: Do you ever hear directly from residents about the improvement in service?
Dana: Actually, I do. I work with a lot of the contractors that are in Manatee County and they’ve now gotten used to the Accela system and it’s familiar so we don’t really get a lot of those compliments. But many of the big developers and commercial projects are a different story. They will call because it’s a new system and I’ll be on the phone with them explaining the whole process in a quick summary because it’s that quick and easy. And by the end of the process of review and the point of issuance, they’ll call me and say, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened!” So one of the things I do occasionally is I’ll go and look at Google Review for Manatee County and I could see a lot of bad reviews in 2018, and there are so many good reviews now of how easy the process is, how easy it is to set inspections.
Accela: That’s great! Before we wrap, is there anything else you’d like to share?
Dana: Yes, I have a quick story I’d love to share. During Hurricane Ian, most of Manatee County lost power. And the day after Ian moved through, my manager called me and said, “I need any permit techs that have power to issue permits for the hurricane damage.” But out of 14 permitting supervisors, only three had power.
I had an extension cord from a neighbor across the street that was powering my refrigerator. So I said to my manager, “Well, I can try to plug in my modem and see if I can get wi-fi too.” It kept telling me no Internet. So I called over to my neighbor’s house and said, “Hey, for giggles, do you happen to have Internet?” She ran over a ridiculously long Ethernet cable, and I sat in my driveway all day on Thursday and—because we’re on the cloud—I was able to permit signs and aluminum cages, the electrical permits and emergency ones that were needed.
We got them in the system and ready for review. We were back in the office on Friday, and the plan reviewers were already reviewing them. So even during a tragedy, we can still get stuff out. It’s great.