Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections launched its long-delayed system for accepting online permit applications on March 16. Days later, the city closed its buildings to the public.
The rollout of the eCLIPSE system right before the coronavirus pandemic shut the city down was fortuitous. Before the online system, all permit applications had to be submitted, paid for, and picked up in person.
So without eCLIPSE, “the permitting process in Philadelphia would have ground to a halt,” Karen Guss, spokesperson for L&I, said in a statement.
Although much of the city’s construction has stopped due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s order shuttering nonessential business, contractors want to make sure they have what they need to work after the ban is lifted, and some of those granted waivers need permits to be able to keep working. Contractors also depend on securing permits to get paid.
Permitting is still happening during the pandemic, albeit at a little slower pace. But in the first couple of weeks, some contractors and real estate agents complained that the system wasn’t working as advertised.
“There have been, and will continue to be, bumps in the road,” Guss said. “It was expected that online permitting would grow over time, with many people continuing to rely on in-person processes. Now the transition has happened very suddenly. That increases the impact of the inevitable bugs and technological hiccups that arise in deploying a brand-new system.”
Since March 16, L&I has reviewed more than 900 online permit applications and more than 800 permit applications filed in person before the shutdown. Examiners are reviewing these applications from home, and payment is accepted and permits are issued online.
But some permits require approvals from several other departments, some of which are not doing that work during the pandemic.
As L&I launched eCLIPSE, it also started using an automated phone system, so contractors can request inspections at any time, day or night, without having to reach the specific inspector assigned to their projects.
During the construction shutdown, L&I has shifted its focus to enforcing the governor’s stop-work order. But the department is continuing to inspect and monitor dangerous properties and demolitions, which “remains a high priority,” Guss said. The department is responding to hundreds of requests per week for construction inspection.
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Before the health crisis, the department was having trouble recruiting and retaining inspectors, a problem agencies across the country are facing because of fewer young people entering the profession, building codes becoming more complex, and employees retiring. The city had high hopes it would be able to fill positions by changing recruitment methods, including the possibility of partnering with Community College of Philadelphia to train inspectors, but those talks are on hold while the city deals with the health crisis.
The president of the union that represents L&I workers did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview last month, union officials said they hoped the system would lighten workers’ loads as the department said it should.
"The department talks about eCLIPSE like it’s the be-all, save-all, and we hope that’s the case,” said April Gigetts, vice president of AFSCME Local 2187.