By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An increase in building permit fees is “not unreasonable” if kept to between 15-25 per cent, a leading architect said yesterday, urging that any rise be linked to service and efficiency improvements at Building Control.
Amos Ferguson Jr, president of the Institute of Bahamian Architects (IBA), expressed doubt that an increase in fee revenue would reduce the time taken to process building permits, saying it was “rare” for an approval to be issued within six months of applying.
He told Tribune Business that the Building Control Department “continues to lag behind everyone else” when it comes to processing building permit applications, despite having a larger staff than their counterparts in many other jurisdictions.
Mr Ferguson was responding after the Deputy Prime Minister and minister of works, Philip Davis, indicated during the Mid-Year Budget debate that the Government was assessing whether to increase building permit fees.
Noting that the fees had not increased for at least 25 years, Mr Davis said building permit revenues undershot projections for the first half of the Government’s 2012-2013 fiscal year by 44 per cent.
Just $403,299 was collected, compared to forecasts of $716,633 - a gap of $313,334. And Mr Davis said the fees charged by the Ministry of Works’ Building Control Department were between 50-80 per cent lower than those levied in Freeport by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA).
Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business that an increase in building permit fees was unlikely to impact the construction industry and associated professions, as long as the percentage rise was kept “reasonable”.
“Building permit fees have not changed in a long time,” he said, agreeing with the Deputy Prime Minister. “It depends on what percentage increase they have in mind.
“I don’t know that an increase in building permit fees would have a significant impact on the industry, because they are not very expensive.
“If the increase is reasonable, I don’t think it will have any significant - say a 15-20 per cent increase. I don’t think that they will go up 50 per cent; I think that would be a little unreasonable.”
The IBA head said an increase “anywhere from 15-25 per cent, 25 per cent maximum” would be acceptable. “Over that, there may be a bit of a problem,” he added.
Agreeing that any fee increase should be directly tied to improvements in permit processing efficiency at Building Control, Mr Ferguson expressed scepticism that this would happen.
“There should be significant changes,” he told Tribune Business. “We continue to lag behind everyone else, and people are constantly complaining about the long time.
“The whole process is wrong. They are carrying out checks which they shouldn’t have to, as they’re dealing with applications from qualified, licensed people. It only takes more time and money.”
The IBA in the past has recommended that the permitting process be speeded up through outsourcing key aspects to qualified professionals, such as architects and engineers, but Mr Ferguson suggested that Building Control did not want to lose control.
“What we have done is compare staff levels [at Building Control] to other jurisdictions, and we have found people who handle three times’, four times’ as many applications and have a smaller staff than they do,” the IBA president told Tribune Business.
“That tells you there’s a whole lot of inefficiencies going on. In Dade County in Florida, which handles thousands and thousands of permits, their staff is still not as large as it is here.”
Speaking to the resulting problems for the Bahamas, Mr Ferguson said: “There are projects that never go beyond the design stage, because by the time you’ve got the permit, conditions may have changed, developers may decide to delay or abandon the project.
“The contractor loses out, the construction worker doesn’t get the job, and we may lose the balance of our architects’ fees.”
He added that it was “a rare occasion” when building permits were issued within six months of the application being submitted, and said it took him two years to get approval for a one-storey building “no more than a standard house in terms of size and complexity”.
The IBA is preparing to resubmit recommendations, which it made to the former Ingraham administration, to the current government in the hope it will act on improving the building permit process.