By Jeff Keeling
He’s only been here two months, but Johnson City’s new chief building official is already leading a review of all the building division’s processes with an aim toward better serving the public. Jim Sullivan, a former Army officer, private contractor and Alexandria, Va. fire marshal, also hopes to help develop a task force to aid people living in blighted properties as his division’s three-person property maintenance team ramps up its enforcement.
Helping Johnson City begin overcoming a longstanding, less-than-stellar reputation as a place to build and develop is the most high-profile of Sullivan’s tasks, though. Last week, before strolling to a job site at Cardinal Park for a visit with folks from Citadel Construction, Sullivan talked about how he intends to do that. He said one advantage is his private sector experience from 1990-2001 – first in the insurance industry and then as a commercial and industrial contractor for seven years.
“I’m familiar with building commercial, residential and industrial, and I understand there’s cash flow issues that people actually have,” Sullivan said. “The progression on job sites is tied to how the money flows. Project management is part of this.”
To that end, Sullivan said the division’s complete process review in advance of a rollout of new software is critical. Rather than impose the current operating procedures and whatever flaws they may have onto a new software system, the group is looking at every detail of how it does business internally and with the public.
“”We are breaking down our operation into individual processes, looking at how we do business, and trying to figure out how to streamline that and capture it into an IT model,” Sullivan said. From there, the division will put those revised processes to work in the new “Cityview” software, which he said is based on a best practices model for code administration.
Sullivan said the new system will be more efficient than the current, analog model for contractors, homeowners, city employees and everyone else who will use it. It also will allow completely transparent access to all stages of the process, from application through certificates of occupancy.
Sullivan said some likely changes already have been identified. On the residential permitting side, he said several things homeowners have been required to go through probably aren’t necessary.
“I think we get our fingers involved in some things we don’t need to, but there are also some things commercially that we are not doing that we absolutely should be doing. And there are some inspection processes that we’re missing.”
On the information flow side of things, Sullivan said there is room for improvement at how information is disseminated to customers. And he knows just how important that can be. Early in his tenure as a general contractor, Sullivan recalled, he had – he thought – completed a tenant buildout in a brand new building. The client’s lease at its former location was up, and Sullivan would face liquidated damages if he didn’t turn the space over on time. He’d jumped through all the required hoops with the city.
“I had a fire marshal walk in and throw a whole new list of requirements at me, and would not issue a certificate of occupancy until I met those,” Sullivan recalled. His clients moved in sans CO, he survived the threat of legal action, and he learned a major lesson he hopes he can apply in his new role.
“It’s way too late when you’ve got somebody with their bags packed and they’re ready to move into a new place and you tell them, ‘oh, by the way,’” Sullivan said. “I’ve been through those scenarios on both sides of this, and there are ways to work through that. Being in the chair that I’m in here, I’ve got some flexibility – I’ve got some abilities to work through those.”
That won’t mean overlooking violations or ignoring life safety issues, Sullivan said. And it won’t mean special favors for anyone or getting hoodwinked. “There’s reality and there’s perception sometimes, and sometimes there’s some gamesmanship that goes on in the contracting world,” he said. “Having played all sides of that, I can tell you I know the difference.”
Sullivan said he knew about Johnson City’s reputation, calling it, “sort of intriguing, because there’s some opportunity. The good news is, the staff we have here is eager to improve as well. I think we’ve got some folks here with real good technical skills.
“A lot of this is process stuff. That takes a little time, but it’s fixable. If you’ve got the people in place, the process stuff is easy.”
Johnson City Commissioner Jenny Brock said Sullivan has impressed her so far. A more technologically modern, user-friendly application and inspection process was among the changes commissioners called for last year following the results of a survey that found significant criticisms of the city’s development process among private sector businesses.
“We have to be compliant with the law,” Brock said, “but when a builder or a resident, or someone who’s working on a project, if there’s something that’s out of compliance, that we work with them very open-mindedly and say, ‘ok, I can’t pass this, and here’s the reason why. Let’s put our heads together and figure out how we can make things work.’
““There’s definite room for improvement, as there is in anything. I want to see it much more customer-focused and helping the customers solve problems.”