Restaurants Will be First Test of Reforming the City Permit Process

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City Departments have taken the first steps towards the reform of our business permit process, in response to a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) included in the 2011 budget.  The initial step will be to test a new way of processing restaurant licensing, and it will be underway early next year.

The SLI that my office initiated was aimed towards ultimately creating a ‘One-Stop Licensing’ program, like those being developed in many other cities.  Businesses have long bemoaned the multiplicity of regulatory and licensing requirements in Seattle.  When we investigated this, we were surprised to find that there was not even a central listing or inventory of the permits that the City requires!

We therefore asked the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) to identify and categorize all City-issued licenses and permits required to open and operate a business in Seattle.  We also asked them to work with departments to analyze the original purpose of each license and permit requirement and analyze whether the license or permit continues to achieve its intended purpose.  The ultimate goal would be to identify opportunities for consolidation or change in licensing and permitting requirements, and to analyze the feasibility of developing a Master Licensing system (one stop license and permit service).

The initial results are now in, and FAS has agreed to initiate the first test of its ability to consolidate.  This test will be in the restaurant industry, one of the case study examples from other cities.  New York City claims that they have cut the permitting time by 75 to 80% for new restaurants as a result of their new one-stop approach.  FAS will test this in 2012.

At the same time, research on other opportunities for permit reform will continue.  By the end of the first quarter of 2012, FAS expects to have a systems analysis of what other consolidation opportunities exist.  They are cautious about the prognosis – they note that their current estimate is that it will cost about $300,000 per industry to convert software and build a consolidated system.  According to their numbers, New York City spent $1.5 million on its permit reform program.

While it is true that these kinds of expenses may be difficult to budget, especially in the current economic situation, it is also true that the only way we will generate more revenue (and more jobs) is through the growth and expansion of our businesses.  If permit consolidation makes Seattle more attractive and a better place to do business, and if reduced permitting costs mean that more entrepreneurs will be able to start businesses, then these kinds of expenditures can really pay off.  We will eagerly watch the rollout for restaurant permitting, and look forward to seeing the next set of analyses.