Businesses ask city to make getting permits simpler
MANCHESTER - Local businesses have complained that the city's permitting process is confusing, frustrating and inconsistent.
A special committee of aldermen named to investigate the claims voted this week to have city departments put together within 60 days a how-to manual or flow chart showing business owners the steps and permits needed, and a list of ideas on how to make the process easier.
The full Board of Mayor and Aldermen will sign off on the request at its next meeting.
Alderman Tom Katsiantonis, who owns Grand Slam Pizza, said he had the same piece of equipment installed by the same person as a fellow business owner. The other owner's equipment passed inspection, but Katsiantonis said his equipment did not, leading to further repairs.
'The biggest issue is every inspector should be on the same page,' said Katsiantonis.
Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur, who owns Theo's Restaurant, said he was frustrated to learn he could not build a patio in front of his building because of parking requirements in his zone.
'The rules seems to be different for different people,' said Levasseur.
Planning and Community Development Director Leon LaFreniere agreed there is room for improvement, but challenged many of the comments made in a survey the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce conducted in 2011 after receiving complaints from members about the city's permitting system.
LaFreniere said that in the economic downturn, developers and business owners are trying to save costs by managing large projects themselves. Sometimes, he said, these owners don't know all the details of the process and run into problems.
On Tuesday, he told the Special Committee on Job Creation, Job Retention and Economic Development that his department's role is not just to help business owners, but to ensure buildings are constructed safely and comply with local ordinances and state laws.
While his department offers help to navigate the system, time is limited.
'We're down in staff as a result of last year's budget and this limits the time spent with our customers,' LaFreniere said.
Business owners are required to get permits from multiple city departments, which can include the Planning and Community Development, Fire and Health Departments. Many of those surveyed by the chamber in 2011 said a lack of communication between the departments causes confusion and in some cases, conflicting interpretation of rules.
'You get mixed messages from different departments,' one interviewee said. 'Resolving these mixed messages results in projects not moving forward due to the time and costs involved.'
There is also a lack in consistency between inspectors, the report said. People who review plans don't catch problems that inspectors later find, leading to costly, last-minute repairs. The report suggested better customer service, more consistent code enforcement and an appeals process for businesses when permits are denied.
'It shouldn't matter what inspector you get. The codes should be applied the same for everyone,' one business owner wrote.
LaFreniere said there is already coordination between departments, such as consolidating the Building and Planning Departments and giving the Fire Department space for office hours in the Planning office. Permit applicants can also meet with planning staff, which is advertised on the planning website, he said.
Alderman Jim Roy, who is a licensed plumber, agreed business owners need a general contractor or point person to guide them through the process, and shouldn't solely depend on city staff.
Health Department Director Tim Soucy said his department offers a flow chart of each step in the permitting process to new restaurant owners, as well as a guide explaining the process. These go only to new restaurant owners, though, not retail or other businesses.
The Chamber survey respondents included suggestions, such as having a staff person focus on assisting people opening new businesses or hiring someone to review building plans, paying for the position out of impact fees. It also suggested creating an information packet for all business owners, an idea the aldermen said should be put into action.
LaFreniere and some of the aldermen noted the Chamber survey included four pages of anonymous comments 'as some interviewees fear retaliation on future projects/application if they speak publicly,' the report said.
LaFreniere denied anyone in his office would retaliate against a customer. Roy also defended the Planning Department.
'There is no retaliation,' said Roy. 'If you make a mistake, it's worked out. I think it's a hollow excuse.'