The Washington Post

Leader of Prince George’s moves ahead with his plan to restructure the permit system

The complaints have become the stuff of suburban legend.

It takes Prince George’s County several months to process renovation permits. It can be a decade before officials get the courts’ permission to level fallen-down foreclosed homes. And opening a business can require multiple trips to government offices from Laurel to Largo.

“Right now we get an A-plus in complexity,” said Deputy County Administrative Officer Carla Reid, who along with Haitham Hijazi, the public works director, and Adam Ortiz, the acting environment director, is trying to unravel the long-lamented permitting, inspection and code enforcement system.

When County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) unveils his $2.7 billion budget Thursday, he will propose a new agency while restructuring others to streamline how the government approves and enforces permits. His plan has been in the works for months and includes assigning some inspectors to work evenings and weekends, when violations occur but no one is on duty; automating applications; crunching data about response times; and even redesigning the office that issues permits.

The new procedures, Baker said, would help attract businesses and clean up neighborhoods. In turn, that would expand the tax base and help the county underwrite key objectives, such as improving schools and public safety, he said.

Baker, who already has County Council support for the broad outlines of his proposal, will formally ask its members in the next few weeks to allow the administration to extract permitting, inspections and enforcement from the Department of Environmental Resources.

The $140 million environment agency would be remade into a smaller organization that would focus on the environment, trash collection, recycling and clean water. It would no longer manage permits or be required to ferret out illegal nightclubs, which would become the responsibility of the new Department of Permits, Inspections and Enforcement.

The public works department also would undergo changes, including transferring some engineers and permitting experts to the new permits department. That would leave public works with responsibility for snow removal, road maintenance, the county bus system and traffic lights, among other items. “Nothing has been done like this in the history of Prince George’s County,” said Hijazi, who has worked for the county for two decades.

To business leaders and residents, the proposed changes are long overdue. “It doesn’t necessarily reduce oversight, it provides more certainty and moves permits in a way that is more consistent,” said David Harrington, a former lawmaker who heads the county’s Chamber of Commerce.

The redo comes at a critical time, the midpoint of Baker’s four-year term. The former state legislator ran for executive in 2010 on a platform of fixing the public schools, improving public safety and bringing in new businesses to help raise revenue for all the other improvements.

County officials acknowledge that more must be done to achieve Baker’s goals. The recent slayings of six teens in six months and a school system seeking its sixth superintendent in 14 years underscore his challenge.

“There are many more things we must do to really become business-friendly,” Reid told the council as she outlined the plans for the new department.

Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park) said he was optimistic that the plans to revamp permitting and enforcement could have a ripple effect.

“I like what I am hearing,” he told Hijazi and Reid as they laid out the proposal. “This is critical for neighborhoods.”



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