The Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to create a permitting office designed to make it easier for residents to get simple building permits.

City Manager Jon Jennings said creating the new office is one of several ways he is looking to make city government more efficient and effective. “There will be more things that will come before the council in terms of reorganization,” he said.

The office will include three new planning technicians, an intake and review manager, and an inspections manager, allowing for the elimination of the inspections division director and deputy director, a full-time and a part-time office assistant, and an administrative assistant.

The staffing changes alone will increase salaries and benefits $280,000 a year. The office also will incur one-time costs of $300,000 for technology upgrades and $8,000 for training.

Jennings proposed paying for the new office by raising building permit fees from 1.1 percent to 1.6 percent of construction costs, after the first $1,000 – a 45 percent increase.

However, Councilor David Brenerman persuaded the council to amend the proposal, reducing the fee to 1.5 percent per $1,000, which would eliminate about $130,000 in annual revenue.

“I don’t understand why Portland always has to be the highest-taxed and highest-fee community,” Brenerman said.

The Portland Community Chamber supported the proposal, along with Brenerman’s amendments.

“This is an issue the chamber has been following for a while and we’re excited to see what the next steps are going to be in the reformed city government,” said Christopher Quint, the chamber’s City Hall lobbyist.

Brenerman also sought to exempt projects that already have site plan or administrative approval. But one councilor said this could raise a potential conflict of interest for him.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, a real estate attorney who was elected in November, said clients of his law firm would benefit from not having to pay higher fees. His concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest prompted the council to refer the exemption – along with an amendment regarding affordable housing – to the Planning Board.

While city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta determined that Thibodeau’s situation didn’t meet the technical requirement for a conflict, she said she had to review case law about what constitutes an appearance of a conflict.

That determination was important because Jennings needed seven votes to enact the proposal as an emergency measure so the city could begin collecting revenue to pay for the additional staffing and technological upgrades.

Only seven councilors were at Monday’s meeting, with Councilors Nicholas Mavodones Jr. and Jill Duson away at a national conference.

Thibodeau tried to recuse himself, but Mayor Ethan Strimling called a brief recess to discuss the potential conflict. Councilors huddled in a corner away from their microphones. The public session resumed after a reporter raised objections.

After the meeting, Brenerman said he was confident that the council ultimately will vote to exempt projects that already have been approved.


Comments are not available on this story.