Halifax Auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd speaks to reporters at city hall in January 2020. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Halifax has no clear timeline for the approval of building permits and inspections and its records are inaccurate, according to the latest report from the city’s auditor general.

But the city has implemented 89% of the recommendations from Auditor General Evangeline Colman-Sadd’s 2018 reports on procurement and development approvals.

Colman-Sadd tabled her office’s new audit of building permits and inspections, and follow-up reviews of the two 2018 reports at an in-person meeting of council’s audit and finance standing committee on Wednesday.

“Overall, HRM effectively manages its building permit application and inspection processes; however, we could not determine if timelines to issue building permits were reasonable,” the report said.

“Inspections were completed as expected and confirmed compliance with building code. This helps ensure public safety. There is room for improvement in developing service targets to give the public expected processing times, as well as developing a mentoring plan for building officials.”

Building officials review plans and inspect buildings to make sure they’re compliant with National Building Code. (Disclosure: My brother is a building official with the city.)

The auditor general’s office audited a sample of 60 building files to assess the building standards division’s performance:

For the 60 building files we examined, building officials completed inspection checklists in most instances. We expected to see 544 inspections performed. We found 99% were completed. Fifteen inspection checklists were not on file. We were able to use alternate evidence to confirm inspections were performed for nine of the 15. There was no evidence the remaining six inspections (1%) were done.

Colman-Sadd found the division has no service standards “to provide the public with expected turnaround times for processing most building permit applications and performing inspections.”

The auditor general’s office reviewed the processing time for the 60 applications, but without established service standards, it couldn’t determine whether they were reasonable.

“Fifty-eight of 60 applications reviewed were assigned to a building official for review within three business days of the division receiving the application. The remaining two files were assigned within five to nine business days,” the report said.

Colman-Sadd also found issues with the quality of the division’s data:

Accurate data is needed for performance measurement and to assist with program management. Staff told us the date used in the system for when the building official starts the review is not accurate. This means management does not know how long building officials take to complete their reviews, or how long a plan awaits review once assigned to a building official. We are aware the system used to record building permits and inspections is outdated and understand Planning and Development is implementing a replacement system. Some of the benefits of a new system will be lost if accurate information is not entered.

Further, the auditor general found there were staffing concerns in the department with employees moving over to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency (HRFE) and others due to retire.

“Seven of eight building standards staff we interviewed had concerns about staffing challenges,” the report said.

The report said five building officials left to join HRFE in May 2019 and, “There is a risk additional staff may leave.” Six building officials and a supervisor are eligible for retirement and six more will be eligible in the next five years.

The report said there’s no formal mentoring process in place where higher-level building officials show lower level and assistant building officials how to do the job.

“It is important for staff to gain experience to take on more complex work so that division responsibilities can still be carried out if experienced staff leave,” the report said.

The auditor general made three recommendations and management agreed with all three:

  1. As Planning and Development implements the new building permit and inspection system, management should develop checks to confirm accurate data is entered.
  2. Planning and Development should develop measurable service standards for building plan review and inspection processes, and regularly monitor and report results. Service standards and results should be publicly available.
  3. Planning and Development should develop a formal mentoring plan and document how staff will obtain practical experience to perform their current role and more complex work.

Better than expected implementation after previous audits

In a follow-up review of her office’s 2018 audits, Colman-Sadd found that 89% of the 38 recommendations made that year have been implemented.

Twenty-eight of those recommendations came from Colman-Sadd’s report on procurement, which found that “significant improvement” was needed in the city’s procurement process. Several employees had access to financial information they didn’t need for their jobs.

Although 25 of the 28 recommendations are complete, among those outstanding is one of the fixes to that issue: “Access to physical and electronic files should be changed as employees move within the organization or leave HRM.”

In her office’s other 2018 report, Colman-Sadd found long delays on development applications like rezonings, development agreements, site plan approvals and subdivision applications. That report made 10 recommendations — nine of which have been implemented.

Still outstanding:

Planning and Development should develop and implement quality control checks on its files. These should be done by a second person not involved with the file to confirm all necessary documents are on file and stored where they can be accessed by staff when needed. A file checklist at the front of each file would help ensure completion.

Colman-Sadd told the committee she was pleased with the high rate of implementation. She said her office is looking for 80% completion when it reviews past audits.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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