Milwaukee DNS permit delays, staffing trouble at root of problem

Milwaukee residents told FOX6 News they are dealing with delays in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS).

Members of DNS told FOX6 that attrition, new hires and heavy workloads are among the reasons for these delays. The head of one organization said some things that used to take a few weeks now take months.

“In 2022 we built 20 houses. In 2021, we built 15 homes,” said Chris Garrison, construction and operations manager at Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity.

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Weather, volunteers, and funding are some of the key factors Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity relies on to build affordable homes. They also have to go through an approval process with DNS before each build.

“It’s up to us to do as much as we can early on to get the permits as soon as possible,” Garrison said.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity

In Garrison’s seven years as operations manager, he noticed a change in the permitting process.

“I tracked approval delays in 2018, and they’ve been slowly increasing since then,” he said. “In 2018 I got approvals in three to four weeks, which is pretty quick, but lately it’s been two to three to four months.”

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The delays prompted Garrison to reach out to Ald. Milele Coggs.

“In this last year, 14 years that I’ve been here, I’ve never gotten as many calls as it takes,” Coggs said during a committee meeting last fall. “Some of these things aren’t that complex.”

At a time when companies across the US are shedding employees and hoping to find replacements, DNS faces the same reality.

“We lost two inspectors on residential buildings. Right now, in enforcing trade legislation, we have one…electrical inspector, we’re down three,” DNS Supervisor Kristen Reed said during a Jan. 31 committee meeting.

“In our homestead, 40% of our inspectors have been in office for less than a year,” added Erica Roberts, DNS officer.

FOX6 met with Reed after this meeting to see if the department’s delays were decreasing.

“We have a few vacancies in certain inspection areas, but we’re pretty busy…staffed…just training staff,” Reed said.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity

As for Garrison, he said that Cogg’s help and meetings with DNS eventually got him his permits.

“I have no problems with anyone in the department. They all work well with us and I have a good relationship with them,” Garrison said.

Coggs said changes and improvements take time: “I would definitely encourage people to call their city council because once we realize it’s a problem, we can work together to find a solution.”

Anyone with problems with a department using taxpayers’ money should contact their deputy; Once they know the problem, it is their responsibility to help.

Neighborhood Services Department Questions and Answers

FOX6 followed with DNS again to get some answers. Our questions and the department’s responses are as follows:

Q: Based on previous meetings with city leaders, DNS has had delays in approving and responding to residents with complaints about their property. Has there been any improvement in recent months?

A: Four new plan reviewers were onboarded on Monday, January 23, 2023 at the Development Center. In addition, on Monday 9 January 2023, a new administrative assistant was taken on board. Development center staff continue to work diligently to allocate resources and review approvals in a timely manner. As additional staff has been hired to enforce the Code in recent months, DNS has seen a downward trend in complaint response times, which continues to improve

Q: Personnel issues have surfaced multiple times from DNS as something the department is working on. What is a fully populated DNS? How many more employees need to be hired?

A: DNS is funded to fill 249 positions and has 40 open positions across the department as of February 1, 2023.

Q: Is there anything Milwaukee residents can do better if they’ve filed complaints with DNS? Ie: Fill out the paperwork correctly or follow up?

A: Residents can submit complaints in a number of ways; vocation 414-286-2268 or 414-286-CITY (2489) or through Click for Action on the city’s website. Follow-up can be done either through a call back or by checking the status of the online complaint if they have created an account with Click For Action.

Q: Are surveys now available for people to fill out after working with DNS? If no, when will these be available?

A: We have an existing survey within the QLess customer registration and scheduling software. This is complemented by a new poll in accordance with Common Council Resolution 221285 of 27 January 2023. The survey will be developed later this year in coordination with ITMD.

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