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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 13, 2006

Online service takes hassle out of some city permits

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

AT A GLANCE

Permits online

Projects at single-family sites that require no plans, such as:

  • solar installations

  • electrical meter

  • plumbing replacements

    Permits expected to go online later this year

    Projects at multi-family sites such as:

  • solar installations

  • residential split-system air-conditioning installations

    Online

    www.honoluludpp.org

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    Solar contractor Doug White estimates that the city's new on-line building permit service saves his business hundreds of dollars and hours of time each week.

    White used to drive from his Wahiawa base to a city office in Kapolei two to three times a week and wait in line for a half-day each time to pull permits to install solar systems for his customers. Now, he said, his wife, Jill, takes about five minutes of computer time for each permit application.

    People applying in person can process only two permits at a time, White said. His wife can get six or seven submitted online within an hour, he said.

    The Whites were among many city customers exasperated by long lines and slow processing in an office that has prompted a flood of complaints to the city. The online application is the latest in a series of changes that the city started in the past year to help shorten the lines.

    "Not only does it save me a half a day, I don't have to spend all that gas going to Kapolei or downtown," White said. "It's saving me time and money."

    Contractors, plumbers, electricians, architects and homeowners begin standing in line at the city offices before they open at 7:45 a.m. on weekdays. Before the online permit system began, "I tried to get there by 7:20 to stand in line," he said.

    He learned that getting assigned a number between 7 and 10 meant that he would likely get called after 10:30 a.m. and was if he was lucky. "Sometimes the line is very long."

    So, he would eyeball the line and see how many people were toting rolls of plans, leave to run errands but rush back so that he wouldn't risk missing his number being called.

    White said skyrocketing gas prices made him appreciate the city's timing in starting this new service. As of March 1, the city Department of Planning and Permitting began issuing permits on-line for projects that require no plans, such as solar installations, and electrical meter or plumbing replacements for single-family dwellings.

    Deputy planning director David Tanoue said the city issued 304 permits from March 1 to Thursday using the new "HONline service" out of a total of 3,749 building permits issued during that time.

    "So 8.1 percent of all building permits issued during this time were completed using HONline," he said.

    Tanoue said the additional cost to the city is nominal. "We make up the difference in saved time," he said. Applicants may apply, pay for and receive their permits all online with the new system, he said.

    Tanoue said the city has started a variety of creative solutions to shorten the lines.

    A year ago, the city began a new line devoted to people who just want to pay for and pick up their permits. That service handled more than 7,200 people in the first 12 months.

    Also last year, the city hired a permit information officer who works part time in the morning to help people see if they have what they need in their application. "A lot of the complaints we have are from first-time users or weekend warriors."

    Having someone to look over what they have means they don't get frustrated by waiting in line for 30 minutes only to be told that they don't have the right paperwork, he said. Last year, that employee assisted 12,300 people, he said.

    And Tanoue is cautiously optimistic that the improvements will continue to ease the lines and shorten the waits for city customers.

    "You can see it's less crowded and there are less complaints," he said. "Things tend to be moving smoother."

    He believes that more people are checking the department's Web site so they show up better prepared. In December 2004, the site averaged 470,000 hits a month, and that has more than doubled to an average of 1 million hits each month.

    Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.