April 15, 2010 By Russell Nichols
The old permitting system in Catawba County, N.C., had been the foundation of the local land management process for a decade before county officials decided to scrap it and get a new one.
That decision came two years ago after the vendor chose to eliminate future support of the product the county used. Without the necessary software updates beyond Windows XP, officials knew it wouldn't be long before the entire system fell far behind.
"The system was not performing the way we wanted it to because it was old software," said Terry Bledsoe, Catawba County's CIO. "There was no upgrade path to get the new features we wanted, so we had to replace it."
In October 2009, Catawba County went live with a revamped system using EnerGov.Net, an enterprise land management suite by Atlanta-based EnerGov Solutions. The system overhaul in many ways was overdue. Previously, while county officials did have the ability to dispatch inspectors and handle field work, the aging system had limited mapping software and no digital storage capabilities. Building plans had to be transported in paper form, which took time and slowed productivity. Even the smallest building requests required a lot of extra legwork to push the process along.
"It really amazed me how many steps there are in even the simplest permit," Bledsoe said. "You want to build a small house out here -- nothing special, just a house -- but there are all kinds of steps. You can't just walk in, get a permit and walk out."
The county's new system streamlines the permitting process by connecting all land management departments to a centralized network. Supported by $600,000 in local project funds, the system integrates electronic plans review and geographic information system (GIS) platforms. The previous system had GIS maps, but they were static, limited and new information had to be put in manually. This new GIS system is live. Anything that's entered into the GIS is automatically available within permitting services, and vice versa. Users can access live maps and see the placement of any other buildings on the targeted lot, and data can move electronically from city to city.
"GIS forms the foundation of our system," said Garth Magness, regional business development manager for EnerGov. "It allows us to connect a number of processes as well as store, catalog and retrieve information geographically. It also enhances agency services and transparency for citizens, contractors and businesses alike."
In the past, building plans would be delivered to Catawba County's Permit Center in Newton, N.C., and then hauled 11 miles northwest in a pick-up truck to the Plan Review Office in Hickory, N.C.
These plans -- copies of civil, plumbing and electrical drawings in 36-inch-long rolls -- ranged from a few sheets to upward of 80 sheets for the big projects. For instance, two and a half years ago, the permit center received a massive delivery from retail chain Target of plans for a 1.6 million-square-foot distribution center.
"They actually rolled the plans in on carts," Bledsoe said. "Anytime you have a huge plant go in, you have thousands and thousands of documents that go with it. We had to store those things too. All of that is just a big, huge cost and burden."
The new distribution center officially opened in Newton last fall around the same time that the new permitting system went live. In 2007, before the system conversion began, county officials spent six months writing Requests for Proposals and reviewing vendors. Overall, even with only one person devoted to converting data, Bledsoe said, it was a "smooth process."
Catawba County has long been recognized as a frontrunner in the region in the provision of e-government services, Magness said, so the project was a logical step on