BY OYAOL NGIRAIRIKL
Delays in processing building permits and business licenses in Guam have been a huge source of frustration.
But the work to implement recommendations made in 2019 aimed at improving the speed with which they are reviewed and issued is ongoing.
A 19-page report completed on Aug. 1, 2019, by the Governor’s Task Force to Reform Government Permitting Procedures included recommendations that aimed to take advantage of the professional knowledge and qualifications of people on both sides of the permitting table, said Herbert Johnston Jr., education director at GCA Trades Academy whom Lt. Gov. Joshua F. Tenorio appointed as chairman of the task force.
For years, and through various administrations, local contractors and businesses have complained about the time it takes to get building permits completed, saying it delays the timeline for families to move into their new homes or businesses to move in and get started. The report noted one example of data gathered where it followed the permitting timeline for a new residential house permit. The application process started Oct. 28, 2018 and by the time it had made its way through the various agencies and boards, of which there are 12 beginning with Department of Land Management, and ending with Department of Public Works, four months had passed. The permit was issued Feb. 20, 2019.
Johnston told the Journal he had spoken to the lieutenant governor in a parking lot shortly after the administration took office about the amount of time and running around needed to get a business license or a building permit.
He said he told Tenorio “… the way the government of Guam is treating people who are applying for business licenses is discouraging to that individual. And basically, the message you’re saying, whether you want to or not, is ‘We don’t want to do business with you on Guam’ and they got three choices. One, don’t do it. Number two, do it somewhere else not Guam. And number three just do it and don’t tell anybody (your challenges). None of them are healthy for this community.”
Shortly afterwards, the governor signed Executive Order 2019-04 establishing a task force in February 2019 to review all government permitting procedures. According to a press release that was sent out following that executive order, the task force “will be responsible for reviewing all government permitting procedures in order to identify opportunities for reform. Recommendations must be provided in a formal report to the Governor no later than August 1, 2019.”
In the release, Tenorio said, “The permitting process can be arduous. We don’t want red tape and bureaucracy keeping our island from success. Our administration is committed to simplifying and streamlining Government of Guam operations.”
When Tenorio convened the Task Force on Feb. 27, 2019 at Adelup, he appointed Johnston as the task force chairperson. They met on March 8, 2019 at the Guam Contractors Association conference room and members agreed to address the building permit and business licensing processes.
The task force met with various government agency staff involved in either the business license or building permit review and approval process to better understand the regulatory mandates, the logic behind the current practices, and seek agency recommendations that could improve the system, the report states.
“We were trying to figure out where room for improvement could be. We sat down with people that had gone to the process and the regulators, including the people who sat at the counters. We asked them about the issues they were dealing with,” Johnston said. “And one of the things that kept coming up was resources. They didn’t have the resources to do this and this because of the budget or (something else).”
Members of the task force met with representatives from the Guam Environmental Protection Agency, the Guam Power Authority, the Guam Waterworks Authority, the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, the Guam Department of Revenue and Taxation, the Department of Land Management, the Guam Fire Department, the Department of Parks & Recreation State Historic Preservation Office, the Guam Department of Agriculture and the Guam Department of Public Works.
What resulted were a series of recommendations. One of the first and most immediate was restoring the One Stop Center, which will have all agencies that are part of the permitting or business license application in one location. With the regulatory agencies should be someone from the Treasurer of Guam to take payments. The center should be open for the entire business day.
Johnston said this was done but he’s noticed that the Department of Land Management representative which is the first agency on the list for application approvals is no longer stationed there regularly. He’s hoping that will change.
Another recommendation was putting the entire process for building permits and business licenses online. Johnston and Department of Revenue and Taxation Director Dafne Mansapit-Shimizu said the work to procure the computer system is ongoing. Johnston said there were some delays, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then when a protest was filed against an award.
Mansapit-Shimizu said once the procurement process is completed and they’re able to select a vendor the online system will help speed up the application process. It would mean someone applying for a business license could go online, fill out the forms and submit them without having to go to the various offices.
“And once that occurs, all of the appropriate agencies (who are part of the process) will be alerted that they need to review the document,” she said. There might be instances when someone would have to go to an office, but a majority of the work would be done remotely, she said.
Mansapit-Shimizu said the system would also help promote transparency because people can track the application status and timely communication, particularly if there are missing documents or items that need to be addressed before a license could be issued.
Another recommendation from the task force is self-certification, where engineers or architects who are vetted by the government can complete a form saying all of the requirements have been met.
Tenorio said he’s a proponent of this recommendation.
“(The Guam Economic Development Agency) is involved and have been tasked with DPW to work with the industry and establish the parameters that can be used to protect our people and get things moving faster. It works in many jurisdictions,” he said.
The current application process requires plans and specifications prepared by licensed engineers and architects be reviewed and approved by Department of Public Works staff for compliance with current building codes prior to the issuance of a building permit. Other jurisdictions like Phoenix in Arizona have implemented a process where approved engineers and architects are permitted to self-certify their plans for certain types of buildings, subject to a review and verification process of a random sample.
DPW representatives shared the concept with local engineers and architects for comments.
“The response was understandably mixed; both in support and against implementing the concept on Guam. Concerns expressed included some mistrust among fellow architects and engineers, a need for secondary reviews, and a potential loss of government revenue,” the report said. “While all these may prove to be valid concerns, they do not appear to be on the surface absolute obstacles. Rather, they tend to highlight areas for potential process improvements.”
Johnston said the government would determine which engineers and architects could self-certify.
“Many of these guys have been doing this for many years and they’re professionals … some probably have more experience and credentials than the people who would approve the plans. So let’s put that to use,” he said. mbj