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Costs run high for Portland’s digital permitting efforts


OregonliveProjected costs for Portland’s paperless building permit system have increased by more than 40 percent while the timeline for the long-awaited technology project has slipped by about a year.

City officials now expect the Bureau of Development Services’ new software system will cost $11.8 million and won’t be up and running until December 2015.

Under original assumptions from two years ago, officials projected costs at $8.2 million and estimated that work would be complete by the end of 2014.

Digital PermittingThe paperless system, pitched under former Commissioner Randy Leonard and later Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is supposed to improve access by digitizing record keeping within the city’s permitting bureau.

When complete, developers will be able to submit applications electronically instead of visiting the city’s office; employees will be able to access documents from the field; and historical permits will be available at the click of a button.

“I’m confident the new system will provide efficiency and the changes necessary to assist the development community and customers and our employees to be more efficient and also result in a more cost-effective system,” Paul Scarlett, the Bureau of Development Services director, told the City Council in 2012.

But like so many technology projects – from Portland’s budget-busting finance and payroll software system to the state’s failed health care exchange – things haven’t worked out as planned.

According to a new report from the city’s Technology Oversight Committee, formed in response to the city’s payroll debacle, the permitting project is not only lagging behind schedule but committee members also have concerns about the accuracy of the current timeline.

The report, presented to the City Council on Wednesday, accused contractor Sierra Systems Inc. of applying “faulty assumptions” to the original formal project plan and schedule. The committee called that a “significant oversight” by the company.

As it stands, the project still lacks a revised project schedule for second and third phases, which represent the bulk of work. Within the project’s overall costs, Portland’s contract with Sierra Systems stands at not-to-exceed $6.8 million.

Using a color-coded stoplight-based scoring system, the Technology Oversight Committee and an outside quality assurance company have flagged the timeline as red. The committee also labeled the overall cost and project scope yellow.

More delays appear inevitable.

“There is discussion about breaking some of the scope into different phases,” the report reads. “The bureau is requiring the full original scope be implemented, but the timing could change.”

The report also notes that on top of the $11.8 million price tag, the city will be responsible for paying $1 million for five years’ of maintenance fees and $800,000 for technology support once the system is finally up and running.

Ben Berry, Portland’s chief technology officer, said Wednesday that 14 of 15 Sierra employees working on the project have been “turned over.” He called that revolving-door employment an “ah ha!” moment for the oversight committee.

“This is obviously a big project. You’ve raised some serious concerns,” Mayor Charlie Hales said in response. “There’s a lot of potential financial risk here. I appreciate the oversight. That’s why we do this – so that the Council has a chance to delve into it and get some questions answered.”

Scarlett, the director of the Bureau of Development Services, said Wednesday that the project remains a priority, with Portlanders often lining up 150 deep to file papers each day in the permit center.

“The schedule and timeline is of concern,” said Scarlett, who remained optimistic about the project.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who has overseen the Bureau of Development Services since June 2013, promised results.

“It will be on time, on budget, and it will work,” she said. “I’m very confident of that.”

The permitting effort – called the Information Technology Advancement Project, or ITAP – isn’t Portland’s only dealings with Sierra Systems.

Last year, Portland hired Sierra under a $215,000 contract to assess the city’s overall use of technology.

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