SIRE Technologies and Cape Coral Team to Create First-Ever Site Plan Automation System
Cape Coral is one of the largest cities in Southwest Florida. It has about 170,000 residents and when the “snowbirds” come south to enjoy the warmer weather in the winter months, the population swells to 220,000. The community is expected to continue growing even more quickly as the Baby Boomers begin to retire and settle in Cape Coral.
As a result of the growth in 2006, about 8,000 single-family residences were built in Cape Coral. The building of these homes and ensuing businesses required a great deal of coordination between the builders, developers, homeowners and the City. A major element in the course of building a city is the site plan approval process.
A group of dedicated Cape Coral City employees set out to simply improve the approval process and ended up revolutionizing the procedure and blazing a trail for other cities throughout the country to follow.
The City had been using a manual, paper-based approval methodology that required the developers and builders of homes and commercial properties to submit up to 18 copies of blueprints, plans, architectural documents, and other supporting material. These piles of documents were to be delivered by hand to City Hall.
The effort to get the information to the City was great, as was the preparation and compilation of the documents by the development firms and other organizations. The applicant usually paid about $3.00 per sheet for the large prints and each set of prints can have 20 sheets per copy.
With 18 copies, the total could sometimes total more than $1,000 per application.
Once the documents were in the door, the approval workflow began.
To approve a site plan, each reviewing agency needs to provide their seal of approval, which was historically accomplished with a rubber stamp. When dealing with a commercial project, there can be 20 pages of plans, each reviewing discipline (mechanical, electric, plumbing, etc.) would stamp each page manually with their rubber stamps. Since the plans were so large, the City set up a special table where approvers would come up to stamp the plans. This laborious process sometimes took several hours to complete.
Joe Mascari, Business Systems Analyst and Workflow Project Manager with the Cape Coral Department of Community Development, said he knew if an applicant did not have to come to City Hall to submit a site plan, there would be an immediate improvement in speed. If an applicant didn’t have to submit over a dozen copies of a plan, there would be substantial cost savings to the applicant and the City.
“We took a long look at ourselves and all the work we were doing,” Mascari said. “The process was so expensive, time-consuming and taxing, that we knew there simply had to be a better way.”
That better way Mascari was looking for came from an unexpected source, a software program they had already been using for a few years in the City Clerk’s Office.
Scott Craig, the Business Systems Analyst in the Cape Coral City Clerk’s Office, had been using SIRE Technologies’ Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) for a few years. Craig had been using the system to manage the City’s documents and workflow processes with tremendous results. The City currently has more than 5 million documents in the system.
“When we saw what SIRE was capable of, we decided to take a look at the Workflow product to see what we could do with it on our side. As we did, we felt it had the potential to help us accomplish our goals,” Mascari said. “The first workflow we created managed the stream of paperwork that was going to and from the Tax Assessor’s office. Scott Craig put together a sleek workflow that made it possible for the paperwork to be scanned and then both submitted and approved electronically.”
“We didn’t have to drive across the river to drop off paper anymore,” Craig said.
The team then took the next logical step in improving efficiencies. Mascari stated, “We agreed that scanning the documents and sending them electronically is good, but what if we didn’t have to scan them in at all; what if we could have site plans submitted electronically by the customer? The problem is we looked around and no one has ever done anything like that, but after speaking with SIRE, we were cautiously optimistic. They said if we could map out the workflows and the forms, SIRE could program it for us.”
People from different disciplines throughout City Hall came together and brought their best practices to the table to plan for and implement the necessary elements. Planning was of paramount importance for this, as it is for any system to work. The team spent about two hours of planning for every hour of implementation,” Mascari said.
Cathy McPeak, Forms Designer, was given the task of creating the forms. “I took all the paperbased forms and created an electronic counterpart,” she said. “One of the major forms is the Site Plan Form, which involves quite a bit of information. I made a template in Microsoft Word® and bookmarked all the fields so it was very easy to integrate it into the SIRE work forms. I even made a calculator in the page that will include fees for the acreage and so on. It was easy to do and is a much simpler way to obtain information than before.”
In the beginning, Manny Ratliff, the Workflow Designer, was handling permits at the front counter. “Joe Mascari helped me better understand how to map out processes,” Ratliff said. “I started out by mapping the actual permit process on paper. I then translated it into a SIRE workflow. I’m not a programmer and I don’t know code. But after I polished up on some Microsoft skills, I was able to do it without any problems. SIRE is pretty straightforward and simple; the way it is structured makes sense. Administrating the system is easy to set up and follow.”
The collaboration effort worked and a new program was born. The SIRE Site Plan is now in operation.
Building professionals can work with the City like never before. They start the process on their end by obtaining a personal identification number, which grants them access to the SIRE program. Making the applicant part of the workflow enables them to fill out an intuitive SIRE form that checks for errors, performs mathematical functions and helps the applicant avoid mistakes when submitting. The applicant also uploads any additional paperwork such as site drawings, plan sheets, and other related documents. This, in turn, starts the application review workflow, which is forwarded automatically to the queue of the first reviewer who checks the application for errors and confirms the documents have been uploaded.
Once the prints are submitted electronically, the reviewers receive the prints and go over them on 32-inch screens to either approve the plans or disapprove them electronically. Comments are compiled within the workflow and are sent to the applicant through the workflow. Depending on the outcome, the workflow either ends or loops until all reviewers have approved and “stamped” with an image that looks just like their old rubber stamp.
The City is also using the workflow for miscellaneous permits that are submitted in person at City Hall. Customer Service Representatives accept the application over the counter from applicants, scan them and upload them into a workflow, which takes the application through the new electronic approval process.
“In the end, the files are all stored in the EDMS. That is quite a lot of paper saved. There is a lot of greening going on around here with this,” said Mascari.
So far, the City has recycled 18.5 tons of paper this year alone.
Moving the /to an electronic document format has brought an added element of security to the City.
“People tend to worry about electronic backup to make sure we don’t lose the data. But they seem to forget that without the electronic backup in place, one hurricane could wipe out all the data, as could a single match. We could be one leaky roof away from data loss,” Mascari said. Furthermore, paper-based items get lost.
“The issued permits and documents we have are stored on a series of giant mechanical file cabinets where we type in a number of a file on a keypad and the file cabinet rotates to find the file. The problem with that is if the person who pulls the file doesn’t put the ‘out-card’ in the right place—it can be very difficult to find it again. We used to see several city-wide emails go out looking for permit XYZwhen it was on someone’s desk all along. Now with SIRE, a dozen or more people can pull the same file at any given time; you can’t lose the file with SIRE.”
A side benefit of SIRE is that the data is being used throughout the City in other ways to improve processes that save time and help them make better decisions such as LEAN and 6-Sigma.
Roger Cole, Data Analyst, said, “Because SIRE is such a dynamic repository of data, we want to use it for statistical analysis. We wanted to know when the permit came in, if it got rejected, why it got rejected, how long it took to complete the permit application, etc. We are collecting the data for our LEAN initiative to find out how we can get rid of wasteful practices and better serve the public. We can automatically pull data out of SIRE to help us with our report generation and analysis.”
By using SIRE Workflow and other process improvement strategies developed around Workflow’s capabilities, the City’s constituencies save up to $1000 per application and countless hours are saved through eliminating paper.
“We here at the City have seen a savings of 11,000-15,000 labor-hours to date every year and we expect to save 20,000-30,000 hours as we continue to build the program,” Mascari said.
The City has also been able to clear out a great deal of space in their buildings. They recently reorganized the office and they were able to eliminate more than 50 percent of the file cabinets because they could finally destroy and recycle the old files. They simply don’t need the space for the paper documents any more.
The team at Cape Coral is justifiably proud of their accomplishments.
Craig said, “My vision was to lead the state in electronic document management; I had no idea that we would be leading the nation. SIRE has so many features that have been helpful. I am constantly helping other city and county governments, asking how we can help them improve their processes as well.”
Mascari said, “I remember speaking with the Director of Community Development about this project and he asked me what we can expect to get out of it. I said we will have the best site planning system on the planet and I think we are on our way to making that happen.”