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Long-standing staff shortages hinder building permit process, Honolulu planning department says


The head of the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting says long-standing staffing shortages continue to hinder his office. The department is in charge of processing over 20,000 building permits a year for commercial and residential projects on Oʻahu.

DPP Director Dean Uchida started in the position just as several DPP workers were accused of soliciting bribes. The scandal hangs over the department that has been the target of public complaints for decades.

Uchida admits the process is broken, but he says the root of the problem is staffing. He is asking the public for patience while this administration works on a fix.

DPP has not increased staff since 1998, according to Uchida.

"We're trying to revamp the entire HR process of onboarding staff," he said. "The process takes so long that by the time we get a list of qualified candidates, the bulk of them have already found another job. So we need to compress that process a little bit more."

He says the city brought in third-party reviewers to speed things up, but ironically the process was slowed down after reviewing their work.

"We began to do audits on the third parties, which had never been audited before. And we found, I guess concerning to us and should be to the community, that like 100% of all the electrical plans were failing to meet code," Uchida said.

"So we started auditing everything that came in and it created a huge backlog. So we backed off on everything and started random audits. But even that caused some backlog. So we suspended the audits for the entire month of July, just so that we can clear the backlog as much as we can," he told HPR.

Uchida will reassess the building division’s situation and decide whether they will start audits again in August. Third-party reviewers make up at least 60% of the total gross number of permits, according to Uchida.

DPP is also planning to add a performance report card on its website to help the public monitor how applications are being processed.

Uchida says DPP plans to spend some $3 million on a new computer system to better track projects. It expects to go out to bid later this year.

As for vacation rentals, Uchida says DPP is in the process of setting up an enforcement branch and creating new job descriptions. Staff from other areas of DPP will work on an interim basis until full-time staff are hired.

"The ordinance takes effect in October. So we want to have a registration process and our enforcement procedures all set up before the bill takes effect," he told HPR. "So something will come out on the website pretty soon about how they can register in late August or early September. That's our target date anyway."

This interview aired on The Conversation on July 28, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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