Documents obtained by Mission Local reveal a large backlog of construction projects, with plans sitting untouched by Department of Building Inspection employees — often for months.
According to the Jan. 4 “Backlog Report,” a document long kept by DBI and widely circulated internally, but not released to the public, 344 projects have been submitted to the department for which employees have done nothing to get the ball rolling.
And the delays noted in the reports are often significant; many of the project plans have been gathering dust since September, October or November. In some cases, the delays are even more significant than that, stretching back to mid- or early 2021.
The projects range from jobs costing tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions. And, in numerous cases, there is a lengthy stretch of weeks or even months between the “arrive date,” when plans were submitted to the department, and the “assign date,” when they were placed with a plan-checker. Even after being assigned to a plan-checker, the projects on the Backlog Report have not yet been worked on, for weeks or even months.
A Jan. 11 Backlog Report shows the total reduced to 246; a rapid drop, but still, historically, a high tally.
The Backlog Report is composed of “in-house” projects. This is DBI jargon for costly larger projects, often requiring many hours of staff time. Smaller, less expensive projects can often be handled in a matter of hours “over the counter;” these are not the sorts of projects included in the Backlog Report.
“The money is in large, intake projects,” explains a longtime DBI official. “You cannot have large, intake projects taking three to four months to even be touched. And that is absolutely happening.”
By failing to work on some of its most lucrative projects, DBI is both foregoing revenue and infuriating the general public. Multiple department employees said that veteran builders and permit expediters are loath to complain about monthslong delays, lest they irritate their longstanding contacts within DBI. And novices to the building process simply don’t know who to complain to.
The 344-project backlog from Jan. 4 came up last week at a meeting helmed by Neville Pereira, the department’s deputy director of permit services.
Attendees at that meeting said Pereira insisted on the importance of work being completed. More and more plan-checkers are expected to work remotely during the omicron surge. Pereira allegedly stated that the backlog has grown, even while the number of “in-house” projects being handled by DBI’s two dozen plan-checkers has dwindled.
Mission Local does not have handy access to the tally of large intake projects. But the backlog has indeed grown, and grown rapidly, in recent months. In October, it was at 328. Over the summer it hovered at around 200, a figure DBI officials were purportedly aghast with at the time.
Glancing at relatively recent Backlog Reports, the tally stood at 210 in March, 2018, and 90 in December, 2018. In February, 2020, it was 149. Former department employees told us that anything over 100 sends up red flags.
Our questions to the Department of Building Inspection regarding the present backlog were not answered, as of press time. Department employees are not centrally located but working remotely, rendering it difficult to gather answers quickly. This, no doubt, plays a role in the backlog as well.
The department did send us the most recent Backlog Report, recording a large reduction in listed projects, as well as an email Pereira today sent to DBI staff:
I wanted to commend all of you for responding to my plea to address the increasing project waitlist last week. Your collective effort resulted in a reduction of about 100 of our most stale projects. All of this was done in the same week that you were assigned to work from home, and that is also a testimony that you can get the job done remotely. Our task is not yet done, and I have to ask you to sustain this effort until such time that we are caught up and can maintain a reasonable level of service to our customers once again. Let me assure you that your supervisors and I all checking plans alongside the entire group and your effort is not going un-noticed.
We will update this story when we receive responses to our specific questions.
Covid partially explains the swelling backlog, but not entirely. In recent months, the department has augmented its electronic permitting system, which ought to speed up processing large projects of the sort caught on the Backlog Report. But that doesn’t appear to be happening: Many of the projects on the Backlog Report have nine-digit project numbers for “Bluebeam,” the computer program that allows remote editing and review of complex architectural documents. But these projects, too, are recorded as having sat for months, untouched by plan-checkers.
It will be onerous, but hardly impossible, for plan-checkers to work from home via Bluebeam on personal computers with regular-sized screens. It remains to be seen how they will process reams of the scroll-like paper plans on which DBI is still reliant; many, if not most, of the projects on the Backlog Report do not have a Bluebeam number and are on paper.
Unacceptable backlogs at DBI have long been a contentious issue. In December, 2018, then-DBI director Tom Hui wrote a cajoling email threatening consequences for plan-checkers who didn’t pick up the pace:
I am disappointed with the progress of the backlog list. There are projects didn’t review since October (sic). You should compare the backlog with last two weeks and some individual plan checkers didn’t start to review any project fir (sic) long period (sic) of time. You may consider to work with Emily to start progressives discipline action against individual plan checker (sic) fir (sic) their performance.
In the month of Hui’s ignominious departure, the Backlog Report stood at 138. The department has since been led by interim director Patrick O’Riordan. Multiple DBI sources say O’Riordan is a finalist for the full-time position, which could be announced as soon as Friday.
On Thursday, employees with the Department of Building Inspection could not address exactly what work was commenced on the backlogged projects to reduce the tally from 344 to 246 in one short week. But multiple former plan-checkers said that, in the past, they had often been encouraged to open projects and do rudimentary work to say that they had “started” — thus enabling the projects to be dropped from the Backlog Report.
“That was the way we would get stuff off our backlog,” said one ex-plan-checker. “They came to me several times, asking me to do this,” said another, “but never in writing.”
When asked whether this was occurring presently, a department insider said, “you have surmised what is happening.”
The insider said the term “secret backlog” is used among plan-checkers to refer to the projects where only cursory work has been undertaken to keep them off the official backlog list. Plan-checkers “have three work-flows: What you’re working on, the backlog, and the secret backlog.”
“The secret backlog: That’s the number it really is.”
Update, Jan. 14: DBI provided some answers to our questions.