Puslinch building department is going online

PUSLINCH – The building department here will soon be offering an online building permit system.

“We’ve been looking at some type of software in order to bring the building department online for a while and when the COVID hit it pretty much pushed us into that predicament right away – we needed to be able to take in permits electronically,” said Puslinch chief building official Gerald Moore at the June 17 council meeting.

“We needed to be able to issue permits electronically, we needed to be able to book inspections electronically.”

Pre-COVID-19 building permit applications were brought to the township office for review; however since the township office closed to the public in March, those applications have come in via email.

“A lot of staff time is being spent on going through all of the emails and trying to make sure nothing gets missed,” Moore said.

“So we needed really a piece that would help us with that at the beginning.”

The council report also indicated that some applications were missed because they were either too large for email or sent to the incorrect email address.

Enter Cloudpermit, a building permit application system that has been adapted for small municipalities.

“There’s a lot of large and very expensive software out there, but only large municipalities with thousands of permits can afford it,” Moore said.

“So the good thing with this specific software is it’s cloud-based, the provider is maintaining the system, able to update the system, we don’t.”

Going onto a cloud-based system would offer cost savings for both the municipality and for builders.

For the municipality that means cost savings in staff time and for applicants it means not having to travel to the township office, being able to upload files from anywhere, allowing consultants to also upload a piece of the application if necessary, checking the application’s status online and scheduling an inspection virtually.

Moore also pointed out there’s no app for the program; it’s all done online through a link from the township’s website.

Councillor Jessica Goyda said she likes the idea of moving the process online, but wonders about the application screening process.

“Prior to COVID-19 the process for physically applying for a building permit would include bringing the application to the township office, at which point the staff would review the application to check it for things like zoning and setbacks, conservation, engineering, those kinds of things to ensure that it was complete before the application was accepted,” she said.

“I’m not sure, but I believe the intent of that is to ensure that the permit can be examined quickly without being sent back with deficiencies and missing information.”

The applicant would know right away if their application were complete.

“Is there a mechanism in that software to check the applications for completeness?” she asked.

In short, the answer is yes, said Moore, who indicated the online system has two checks.

First the software has several fields the applicant must fill out and documents that must be uploaded.

“If you miss a certain document it won’t submit,” he said.

“So that is going to kind of give the first bit of screening that we have.”

Next, once the application is completed, staff will do a review.

“Staff are looking at it just like they did when they were looking at it in the office,” he said. “We already have a PDF editing software.

“Staff will look at the document and indicate ‘okay you may have gotten it past the first screening, but we still are missing an item’ and the building code gives us two days to notify them before it’s an incomplete permit.”

Councillor John Sepulis asked whether people could still make in-person building permit applications once the township office opens back up.

“We would always recommend to use the software, but if somebody gets into a situation where they have no way of uploading it, certainly they can come into the office, we can accept the permit after we’ve opened the office back up and we could scan the stuff in as ourselves as long as it was in a small format, it wasn’t a large formal drawing,” he said.

“But we’re finding that really 99% of the people want to be online; it’s really we were the ones holding back implementation.”

Applicants will also be able to call to make an inspection appointment if they don’t want to do it online.

Several councillors and Mayor James Seeley were also concerned about proprietary information and backups of the data.

Sepulis wanted confirmation that application documents could be uploaded in a variety of formats, not something proprietary to Cloudpermit.

Moore assured council that many different formats will be accepted, but the township is looking primarily for PDF documents.

“So portable document format which is pretty much what we see with anything else that’s being used,” he said.

“They will upload the documents to the software and then when we review it we will download it, do our review, once we’ve done the review we then upload it back to the site which we call the approved drawings which we can then deal with issuance.

“So at all times we are going to be able to have these documents and it’s going to be always in a format that we can read.”

Councillor Matthew Bulmer asked whether the township would have a copy of the database locally, apart from the cloud version.

Moore said that was in the contact.

He also assured Seeley that Cloudpermit does a backup of its system and director of finance Mary Hasan said the township does it’s own daily backup.

Financially, Cloudpermit is providing the installation and coordination free of charge, however there may be some additional charges to integrate it into the township’s current software system, the report to council noted.

After six months of use, the software will cost $12,000 annually, but it will have no impact on the tax levy because the building department is self-funded.

For 2020, the report recommends that the $12,000 be taken from the building surplus reserve, which had a balance of $594,000 at the end of December.

The report also recommends that the township review the building permit fees as part of the 2021 user fees and charges bylaw to determine how the fees need to be adjusted to accommodate the new software.

Council approved the purchase and implementation of Cloudpermit software.