Many cities around the state were offering permitting and payment systems online even before COVID-19 hit — a move officials and staff were thankful for when the pandemic disrupted life and closed offices last spring. Other municipalities moved quickly to set up procedures to help companies submit building permits or residents pay their water bills without visiting city offices.
In North Myrtle Beach, the building permitting system entered the virtual world in September 2019. Builders and property owners go online to submit plans, communicate with city staff members, apply for an inspection, view the inspection results, turn in any necessary forms and print a certificate of completion at the end of the process.
At one time, the city had not allowed customers to make payments online, "but once COVID came, we flipped that switch and allowed people to do everything online," said Suzanne Pritchard, the senior planner and urban designer with the City of North Myrtle Beach.
Courtnay Heyward of the North Charleston Executive Department attends to residents' needs using the city's online Citizen Support Center. Photo: City of North Charleston.
When North Charleston moved into its new city hall in 2009, the facility became a one-stop shop for permitting. Residents could move from office-to-office to submit, review and pay fees at various departments within the same building.
"Now we've taken our permitting approach one step further and made it all virtual," said Ryan Johnson, North Charleston's public relations and economic development coordinator.
"As I always tell people, our job is to make sure our buildings are safe and adhere to codes because we want them open as quickly as possible," he said. "We want parks open and sidewalks fixed and potholes filled and everything else to run smoothly and grow and improve. Especially considering we're facing a shortfall in revenue this year because of COVID-19, which is not easy by any stretch of the imagination."
He said moving services to a digital platform has helped the staff, residents and businesses.
"It's convenient because people are able to submit all their plans at one location and it goes to everyone all at the same time to be reviewed, so it speeds up the process. Especially in our building, planning, fire inspections and our stormwater inspections in public works," Johnson said.
All of the city's registration and payments for athletics, recreational activities and court costs also are online.
City leaders stress that if customers don't have access to the internet, paper applications are still accepted. Some municipalities have kiosks for payments or internet access available in city buildings.
Pritchard said North Myrtle Beach's decision to move to new permitting software began with a general upgrade of the city's outdated system.
"We wanted to bring more accessibility to everyone. We didn't envision the COVID future during this whole process, where city hall would be closed. We wanted people to be able to come in and talk, but it was also important to have that ability [to work with] people who couldn't get down here," Pritchard said.
The reaction at first was mixed. Developers and builders accustomed to doing large volumes of permits had to change their workflow. Once they realized that someone didn't have to come to city hall for each permit and wait until the process was complete, they appreciated the easier, more efficient process, according to Pritchard.
It also was important for North Myrtle Beach to be able to customize its software to fit its needs, and be able to change the online forms or substitute questions quickly.
North Myrtle Beach allows builders and property owners to handle necessary paperwork online through its building permitting system. Photo: City of North Myrtle Beach.
"We had a lot of staff time learning the system and being able to create the forms and use the forms, but we now can make changes on the fly when something happens like we close city hall."
Choosing and customizing its software also allowed North Myrtle Beach to look strategically at its whole process of issuing permits — something Pritchard recommends for other cities looking to transition to online permitting.
"Really figure out what you want. If you were building the perfect building permit process, what would that be? What are the important parts that were being missed? How can we better coordinate with departments like public works and finance?"
The North Myrtle Beach system is not limited to file uploads and it works for more than building permits. For example, the city realized it could use the same system to develop a plat review process, so residents and developers can submit plats online to the planning department for review.
"Because it's a citywide license, we can use it for any form that needs to be reviewed. There are no limits on files, so that's awesome," said Pritchard.
Cities also offer multiple ways to pay for services like utilities or court fines, including in-person, online and through night drop boxes. The City of York offers those options along with a kiosk in the city hall lobby where customers can pay bills.
York City Hall offers a bill payment kiosk in its lobby. Photo: City of York.
"The night drop box has been very convenient for those who work outside the city. It is a safe, secure, locked safe where they can drop their payments off," said Barbara Denny, York's finance director. "Offering to accept their payments over the phone is something we added with the closing of our lobby due to COVID."
Allowing online payments offers a quicker and safer way to provide payment than through the mail system, Denny said.
"It was difficult in the beginning as the system we use requires you to put in the account number along with the service address. As residents learned the system, they commented how it is great to be able to pay at any time of day or night. It also offers them to set up an account, with their own password, so they can conveniently pay quickly each month," she said.
She said adding the ability to process payments online has reduced in-house payment and foot traffic by 40% to 50%, opening up staff time to work on other projects.
"One of the things I like best with the online system, is that when there is an issue with a payment, I can log in and search quickly to find the payment and explain to the customer why it was rejected. This saves time," Denny said.
As technology improves and options grow, cities can implement changes that make conducting business more convenient and economical.
Advice from Johnson in North Charleston for those cities looking at moving more of their services online?
"Just do it. Government lags behind private industry, but eventually we get there. We started streaming city council meetings in 2011. Now everybody is doing it. By using the technology that's out there, we make things more open and transparent," he said.