Puerto Rico’s Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy is betting on a handful of new online products to be launched in the next four to six weeks to speed up and streamline the government’s permitting process.
During an interview with the “En Una Hora” program on 11Q 1140 AM, in which News is my Business participates, Laboy said there are four new products that will be integrated into the permits website to manage an expected surge in applications.
“We’re expecting an increase in volume with the influx in federal recovery funds, public-private partnerships, as well as projects to be developed in the Opportunity Zones, and as a result of the new Incentives Code,” he said, saying the last element should be approved during the current legislative session.
The issue of drawn-out and expensive permitting processes has been a thorn in the side of project proponents in Puerto Rico, both big and small, for decades. A recent report by the Center for Investigative Journalism noted that delays in awarding the permits because of a lack of inspectors at the Health Department’s Environmental Health division and the Fire Department have resulted in stunted economic growth, especially for small businesses.
The CPI found a 21% drop in the number of Environmental Health inspectors — whose responsibility is directed toward prevention and control of environmental problems that affect public health — in the past 10 years.
In 2012, there were 132 Environmental Health inspectors, while for 2019, the number is 104, according to information provided by the Health Department. In the case Environmental Health permits the agency has granted, there has also been a decrease: in 2015, 32,034 were granted, while so far this year it has only granted 8,881.
The lack of available inspectors has caused permit approvals to take months to go through, often forcing applicants to turn to intermediaries to get the paperwork done — for a price.
In 2015, it took the government an average of 98 days to approve a construction permit and 23 days to issue a permit of use. Laboy said the lengths of time have dropped to 58 days and 14 days in 2018, respectively.
During the first four months of this year, the average time it takes the government to approve a construction permit is 20 days, while permits of use take seven days, Laboy said, citing government data.
Laboy also said the government has been addressing the lack of available resources at the agencies. Between March and April of this year, 80 new Environmental Health inspectors were trained, another 70 for the Fire Department and 30 at the Economic Development and Commerce Department.
“That level of staff helps us manage the current volume. We’re recruiting 98 additional inspectors for the expected volume in the future. But when that avalanche begins, the Permits Reform should have been approved and launched,” Laboy said, adding the government has federal funds available to hire more inspectors if the need should arise.
“We can hire more inspectors so they can be part of that process of speeding up permits in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’m not saying that this has been fixed. What I’m saying is that we’ve made substantial improvements and are going in the right direction. There’s room for improvement but we’re going in the right direction to be able to respond effectively.”