Audit urges state to smooth permitting

OLYMPIA — Getting a business permit from a state agency is less difficult these days, but a few tweaks could make the process even smoother, faster and predictable, a new state audit has found.

If agencies provided more information and assistance to businesses before they submit an application it could reduce chances later of costly delays, concluded the performance audit of 14 state agencies released this week by the State Auditor’s Office.

Auditors also found a need for agencies to do a better job letting business owners know up front how long it will take to obtain a particular permit and to eliminate bureaucratic bottlenecks that slow the handling of the paperwork.

“While permitting agencies employ many leading practices, all have opportunities to improve their processes, reducing the time it takes them to make permit decisions,” auditors concluded.

“When permitting decisions take longer than expected, businesses can face higher costs and lost revenue,” auditors wrote. “Inefficient permitting can also cost the state money in the form of unnecessary staff work and lost tax revenues that pay for state programs.”

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who has led the charge for regulatory and permitting reforms in recent years, said she’ll craft legislation to carry out the findings.

“This gives us a path forward. Businesses want to know what is expected of them so they can turn in what is needed,” said. “The vast majority of job creators want to do the right thing.”

Auditors examined 14 state agencies that collectively issue 225 different types of business permits. These included the departments of Ecology, Health, Transportation, Labor and Industries, Revenue, Agriculture and Fish and Wildlife.

They also surveyed 4,200 permit applicants to gauge their level of satisfaction with state workers and where they felt the state could have done a better job assisting them.

More than 90 percent said state employees were friendly, helpful and listened to them, while 93 percent said workers informed them clearly about the requirements for the permit they sought.

But only 83 percent said employees offered innovative solutions to problems and informed them on how long it would take to get a permit.

“I think what’s really significant is the size of the sampling,” Smith said. “This gives us the ability to take the politics out of it and focus on how to improve customer service to businesses in Washington state.”

Today some permits get handed out when a completed application is turned in, while others can take years, depending on the complexity of the business activity.

Auditors found those agencies with predictable timeframes enabled businesses to develop realistic expectations in planning their projects, but such timelines are available for less than 40 percent of the permits.

And they found agencies are inconsistent on how well they monitor where applications are in the process to make sure none are waylaid for long stretches of time.

Auditors recommend agencies measure the time it takes to make each permit decision and put online, or on the permit form, an estimate of the time required to process the application. They also want each agency to report to the Legislature each of the next four years on how well they are doing in letting the public know the time needed to deal with permits.

In a collective response, leaders of 13 of the audited agencies embraced the intent of the recommendations. But in a Dec. 23 letter, they argued the audit suggestions are a one-size-fits-all approach that won’t work because the permits and the process of approving them vary too widely between agencies.

Instead, each agency vowed to prepare, by June 30, its own plan for improving clarity, predictability and timeliness of permitting. They will report to the governor a year later on how well they’ve carried out their plan.

The Department of Natural Resources accepted all the recommendations except one requiring a report to the governor on Dec. 31, 2014 on the best permitting practices used by similar resources departments around the country. They said it would be “unrealistic” because of the scope of the request.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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