There's a scene in the movie Beetlejuice that depicts purgatory as a place where the recently deceased listen to elevator music and wait interminably to learn their fates while bureaucrats already consigned to hell shuffle five-foot stacks of paper from one place to another. Every so often a guy hanging from a rope by his neck glides through the office on a track dropping more paper, which flutters down like autumn leaves, more often than not missing the desks entirely. This is the place where they handle the most important decision of this or any afterlife. That's the joke.
Anyone who's been to the City of Fort Lauderdale's One-Stop Shop would get it.
The One-Stop Shop is where you go to get building permits, have remodeling plans approved, or get your zoning updated or changed. In other words it's a place where you conduct important business. As such it is a high-profile interface between the city and its residents and could be an opportunity to showcase efficient government at work.
Instead it's a mess. Walk in and you're greeted by no one, usually. If you don't know how to navigate in the place, you'll have to stand in line to ask. Choose your line wisely, or you'll have to go stand in another. Once you do find the right line, you'll have to stand in at least one more to pay for your permit before you get out the door. On the best day with the simplest permit application in hand, you're looking at a two-hour wait. Take a look around while you're cooling your heels. Notice the scuffed white walls, the mounds of files stacked up almost everywhere, the hard plastic chairs, the lack of cheeriness made worse by sporadic holiday decorations. Listen to the cacophony of ringing phones accompanied by the low hum of muttered curses.
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"It's fucked up," says one man, fuming while he waits to be called on for a plan review. "I could come in here and in one week make it better. They're discourteous, as if they don't give a shit. I don't care if it takes six weeks [for a plan review], but at least act like you give a shit."
Asked for his name on the way out the door, the man answers, "Yeah right."
Another patron, not afraid to be identified, says slow service has caused delays on his construction jobs. "They take so long to review things," says developer Kurt Aron. "I happen to know someone [who works here], and that still doesn't help."
These are indeed the rantings of frustrated permit-seekers. They are also the findings of an independent consultant hired to study the One-Stop Shop. In a report issued March 24 with the tongue-twisting title "An Organizational Review of Economic Development and the Impact of the Permit Processing System on Customer Service," the consultant found much to complain about, including long lines, no reception area and no greeter, surly city employees (actual quote from the report: "How can I hate you?"), and inadequate parking. "Several frequent users of the One-Stop Shop describe the operation as a 'joke,'" the report states. It goes on to say that customers who are treated badly often don't complain because they fear retaliation by employees.
The report also criticizes Fort Lauderdale's economic-development efforts. "There appears to be a lack of a vision for this city as it relates to a business and economic strategy," according to the report. "Currently few programs and very limited financial incentives are available to promote economic development, putting the City of Fort Lauderdale at a competitive disadvantage with other Florida jurisdictions."
City officials acknowledge the problems. "I think the observations speak for themselves," says Assistant City Manager Greg Kisela. "We are not disputing them."
Fort Lauderdale is booming, notes Kisela, which means more work for the people who handle permits. And consistently high workloads often lead to frayed nerves. "It's a tense situation for customers, service clerks, and plan reviewers," he says. "There is a lot of pressure day in and day out, and there has not been a slump."
The city, notes Kisela, has been working on improving the One-Stop Shop since even before the report was issued. Some employees have been disciplined for terse behavior with customers, while others have undergone sensitivity training. But fostering a sunnier attitude takes time, he says. "With those types of issues, you are not going to snap your fingers and say, 'OK, now you are going to treat people differently.'"
City officials are also attacking the problem from a procedural standpoint. Departments that were once housed separately are now in the same building, and a new computer system now being tested should cut down on paperwork and speed up the process. When the system is fully functional, plan reviewers will be able to access permit applications and accompanying blueprints via computer, which means anybody who needs to sign off on a plan will have instant access to it.
Less paper would be a good thing, as the One-Stop Shop is overflowing with it. There are blueprints on top of filing cabinets, stuffed in boxes on the floor, crammed in cubbyholes, stacked on desks, and hanging from racks in the back. While simple permit applications may come in with only five or six sheets of blueprints attached, more complex projects -- like a supermarket under construction -- can require several hundred pages of blueprints, which are rolled into giant tubes that look like a hernia waiting to happen for the unfortunate soul who has to schlep them around the office.
It looks chaotic and disorganized. But it's better than it used to be says Clay Parker, the genial assistant building official who is in charge of the One-Stop Shop staff. "Believe it or not, it has been cleaned up a lot," says Parker. "There are still a lot of stacks, but we just don't have the space."
Parker is betting heavily on the new computer system to make things neater and more efficient. He's been pushing the city to go electronic for ten years now, and he finally got his wish in November. The $500,000 Optika system is now processing a small percentage of permit applications. If all goes well, it will be handling the bulk of the paperwork in a few months.
Ultimately customers will be able to access their documents via the Internet and see what city plan-reviewers have to say about their projects without ever setting foot inside the One-Stop Shop.
The electronic future is promising indeed. But for now, hapless souls must still venture through Fort Lauderdale's own version of purgatory, where things are much as they always were. "Things are still run very haphazardly," says a One-Stop Shop employee who asked that her name not be used. "The lines still stretch out the door, the public is irate, and there are not enough [employees] to handle the situation."
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:
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