Milwaukee DNS permit delays, staffing trouble at root of problem

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

Members of DNS told FOX6 that turnover, new employees and heavy workloads are among reasons for those delays. One organization's leader said some things that used to take a few weeks are now taking months.

"In 2022, we built 20 homes. In 2021, we built 15 homes," said Chris Garrison, construction and operations manager with Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity.

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Weather, volunteers and funding are some of the main factors Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity relies on to build affordable homes. Before each build, they also have to go through a permit process with DNS.

"The onus is on us to always do as much as we can early on to get permits in as soon as possible," Garrison said.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity

In Garrison's seven years as operations manager, he said he noticed a change with the permit process. 

"I've been tracking permit lag times in 2018, and they have slowly increased since then," he said. "In 2018, I was getting permits in three-to-four weeks which is pretty quick, but recently they’ve 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 I've been here, I've never gotten this many calls about how long it's taking," Coggs said during a committee meeting last fall. "Some of this stuff is not that complex."

In a time when businesses across the U.S. are losing employees and hoping to find replacements, DNS faces that same reality.

Milele Coggs

"For residential, we're down two inspectors. At the moment, commercial code enforcement, one….electrical inspector, we are down three," DNS Supervisor Kristen Reed said during a Jan. 31 committee meeting.

"In our residential section, 40% of our inspectors are less than one year on the job," Erica Roberts, DNS commissioner, added. 

FOX6 caught up with Reed after that meeting to see if department delays are decreasing. 

"We've got a few vacancies in certain inspection areas, but we are pretty much up... filled....just training staff up," Reed said.

Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity

As for Garrison, he said help from Coggs and meetings with DNS eventually got his permits approved.

"I have no problems with anybody who’s in the department. They all work well with us, and I have a good relationship with them," said Garrison.

Coggs said change and improvements take time: "I definitely would encourage people to call their alderperson, because once we recognize it is a problem, we can work collectively towards a solution."

Anyone who has issues with any department that uses taxpayer dollars should contact their alderperson; once they know the issue, it is their responsibility to help.

Department of Neighborhood Services Q&A

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

Q: Based on past meetings with city leaders, DNS has had delays in permitting and getting back to residents with complaints about their properties. Have there been any improvements in the last couple of months?

A: Onboarding of four new plan examiners was effective Monday, Jan. 23, 2023 in the Development Center. Additionally, a new administrative assistant was onboarded Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The Development Center staff continue to work diligently to allocate resources and review permits in a timely manner. As additional Code Enforcement staff have been hired in recent months, DNS is seeing a downward trend in complaint response times that continue to improve

Q: Staffing issues have come up multiple times from DNS as something the department is working on. What is a fully staffed DNS? How many more people need to be hired?

A: DNS is funded to fill 249 positions and as of Feb. 1, 2023 has 40 vacancies throughout the department.

Q: Is there something Milwaukee residents can do better if they have complaints filed with DNS? Ie: filling out paperwork properly or following up?

A: Residents can make complaints several ways; calling 414-286-2268 or 414-286-CITY (2489) or through Click for Action on the City’s website. Follow-up can be made either by calling back or checking the status of the online complaint if they created an account with Click For Action.

Q: Are surveys now available for people to fill out after working with DNS? If not, when will those be available?

A: We do have an existing survey in place within the QLess customer sign-in and scheduling software. This will be supplemented by a new survey as directed by the Common Council resolution #221285 dated Jan. 27, 2023. The survey will be developed in coordination with ITMD later this year.