By Paul Weideman

Coronavirus caution protocols have brought about “a major change in how we do business,” said Elias Isaacson, building permit intake division director in Santa Fe’s Land Use Department. But the pandemic has not noticeably interrupted the flow of permit applications.

“We are now doing online permitting for some of our simple applications, and we’re doing email permitting for almost everything else,” Isaacson said. “One place where we haven’t been able go truly remote is issuing permits, because there is physical documentation that needs to be exchanged, like perforated drawing sets, so we’re doing issuing by appointment.”

While applications are holding steady, the permit division is a little slower with approvals because staff can only work on them on certain days of the week and certain times of day. “We have kind of a choke point on issuing,” he said.

But contractors are busy. Isaacson said the construction industry has weathered the pandemic well compared to many other economic sectors.

Builders are being conscientious about distancing and sanitizing tools. “It’s a brave new world,” he said. “Same with inspections. We had to put out press releases telling people about our expectations at jobsites: if we need to inspect an enclosed space, we don’t want any crew in the room with us while we’re doing that.

“It’s been really encouraging how adaptable people have been. We haven’t had a lot of people complaining. There are people who have been doing things a certain way for so long and they’re not crazy about going online, but I think now that everyone sort of appreciates the seriousness of the pandemic, we have a more wide-ranging acceptance of what has to be done. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can to get through this time.”

Isaacson said the members of the building community who deal with City Hall every week have been appreciative of the speed at which staff has shifted into this new way of doing things. “I don’t think the City of Santa Fe has ever been accused of being an organization that can turn on a dime, but we’ve pretty much been able to do that.”

So far, the building permits division hasn’t suffered staff reductions, but he acknowledged that “the fiscal crisis we’re facing is going to impact every department.

One of the concerns is that streamlining with more efficient digital solutions may cost jobs, may replace some employees, in itself. Isaacson said that could happen but sometimes it can be the opposite, because the new processes can be more time-consuming.

“For instance in taking in email permits, there’s actually a lot of work we have to do to get applicants ready for our plan reviewers, whereas in the old days people just brought in full sets of everything we needed.”

To what degree are the new methods in the permitting division only a short-term response to crisis? Or is this all going to be the new paradigm? “The idea of doing consrtuction permitting with less face-to-face contact and being able to do more work with City Hall remotely in general is definitely the direction we’re all headed in,” Isaacson said. “I think we’re looking for ways to automate and move toward more of an e-government model. This crisis just made us put everything into overdrive. I think online permitting is here to stay.”

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