Most weekday mornings, there’s a line that forms outside the door to Nashville’s Codes and Building Safety Department. Once inside, the wait can easily top 3 hours.
As Mayor Megan Barry arrived late morning on Tuesday, the slick digital screen for customers estimated a wait time of 4 hours and 9 minutes for the last person in line among about two dozen who sought permits, inspections or answers to zoning questions.
The mayor came to see a new system meant to make the wait more convenient — and the crowd did take note. Yet broader concerns persist about understaffing at Metro Codes, and what some say is a lack of oversight over Nashville’s record-setting building boom.
“There’s a lot of frustration that the level of service that we need for our county just isn’t there,” said Metro Councilman Brett Withers, who represents part of East Nashville.
Withers points to a survey of council members that asked which Metro departments pose the most challenges for residents.
“And the No. 1 out of the whole council,” he said, “was Codes.”
New Technology Is ‘One Step’
The technological advance that the mayor came to demonstrate arrives at the same time that the overall efficiency of Metro Codes is being studied by an outside consultant.
Until those results come in, officials took the morning to praise a software system called “Qless,” which streamlines the process for getting in line.
“The one thing I personally hate more than anything is to wait in line,” Metro Codes Director Terry Cobb said. “And you can ask the folks here today, and they hate it too.”
“Based on their faces,” the mayor added, “I’m going to say, ‘Yes,’ they do.”
With the Qless system customers can get a spot in line in person, through a phone app or by computer. Then they can stay busy working, and receive text messages as their appointment approaches.
“You still have to wait,” Cobb added. “Just not here.”
In a moment of candor, the officials invited a regular customer to share her tale of long lines at Metro Codes.
Kayla Joslin, of Joslin Signs, said it used to be “miserable.”
“You would come in at like 6:45 in the morning and line up and you were out there in the wind, snow, and rain,” she said.
With the text message reminders, she can stay busy instead.
“My productivity at work has shot through the roof,” she said.
So the experience is now more convenient — but the time it takes to actually process each request hasn’t changed.
That’s where concerns like those from Withers, the councilman, come in.
“I hear a lot of constituent concerns that buildings are not being built properly, building sites are not well-maintained,” he said. “They feel that sometimes builders or sub-contractors just do whatever they want.”
In East Nashville, Withers represents a hotspot for growth — the interests of both residents and the development community.
“It’s a broken system — that’s the one thing everyone seems to agree on,” he said of codes administration. “If more staffing is the solution to that, I think that’s a reasonable solution.”
Withers says his questions to Codes, even as a councilman, sometimes go unanswered.
“I just feel that the people who need to be looking at permits closely probably don’t have enough time to do that,” he said. “And with the epic building boom that Nashville is having right now, if there is any department that should have the staffing, it’s Codes.”
So Withers and other council members tried to take action this spring through the Metro budget process.
“The council members asked: Do you need more staff? Do you need more staff? And that was turned down,” he said.
In those hearings, Barry asked Cobb to address complaints about lack of responsiveness and long lines. She also asked whether he would have use for 20 more building inspectors.
Codes ultimately added three positions, bringing the budgeted staff to 107.
As Cobb touted then, his agency has now returned to a pre-recession staffing level, growing after several years of cuts.
Yet much has changed. The department is handling a record-setting amount of construction that is worth twice as much as the prior high, back in 2008. Many of the proposals, along with local regulations, are now more complex.
The department has also taken on oversight of all the city’s nearly 2,000 Airbnbs and vacation rentals. One staff member handles those requests, leading to multi-hour waits like one experienced by architectural historian David Price.
“I waited two-and-a-half hours, and during that time, the Codes official had seen two people,” Price said. “It’s just not a sustainable system.”
Withers said he feels the same, unconvinced that the staffing has kept up with the workload.
‘Make The Ask’
Asked Tuesday whether he could have expanded staff capacity, Cobb, the codes director, agreed he had sufficient council support to request more inspectors in early 2016.
He said he did seek funding for two inspectors in the property standards division, which responds to complaints ranging from improper building to tall grass to unlicensed short-term rentals.
Since then, the mayor has hired a consultant to study that division from “top to bottom,” he said. That will include comparisons to peer cities and to industry standards on measurements such as wait times.
Staffing requests could follow, Cobb said.
“I’m not prepared to say how many at this point in time, but we assume we’ll be in position to make a presentation and make the ask.”
Whether positions are added, filling them has already been a struggle. There are six openings now, with one job posting on the city website. A half-dozen vacancies has been the norm in recent years.