Lansdale Borough Code Enforcement has started to save the town $5,000 a year in correspondence costs, and started to boost efficiency by 15 percent by moving away from typewriters and paper.
It's all thanks to new technology engaged by borough council.
Lansdale Department of Code Enforcement employees Chris Kunkel, Andy Krauss, Maria Lohan and Scott Leatherman have worked for some time on ideas to bring the department into the 21st century and beyond.
The department presented its eight-week-old IT upgrades and improvement in efficiency to the Code Enforcement and Land Planning Committee last week.
"Chris and Andy are working diligently. I feel confident and excited on what we accomplished so far, and what we will accomplish in the future," said Assistant Director of Code Enforcement Leatherman, filling in for an absent John Ernst, the borough's community development and code enforcement director.
The Department of Community Development, which oversees the Department of Code Enforcement, was rated very low in technology satisfaction in the Azimuth Information Technology business assessment findings in September 2012.
In the assessment, it was reported that there are high frustration levels within code enforcement, in regard to its software used in apartment licensing and renewal processes.
The codes department has three goals in mind: get mobile, get paperless and get automated.
"We had to come up with a plan to follow to work through it methodically," said Kunkel, building code official for the borough. "We've gotten through being mobile, we have started the process of being paperless, and hopefully, next year we can start the process of automating."
Kunkel said the department now has fully-functioning PCs whereever employees go in Lansdale.
"We even have printers in our vehicles now. Everything we do in the office we can do at any location. We are dealing with volumes of codes and ordinances. The ability to tap into that from a remote location is very valuable," Kunkel said.
Property Maintenance Inspection Manager Andy Krauss said the department did not buy any software. The software beng used is a full Adobe package that came pre-loaded onto computers that the department is using at present. There was no purchase of additional or special software. The tablet Krauss showed off to the committee last week was his own desktop computer.
"This gets docked into a station and I'm connected to the network and can access a shared drive," Krauss said. "As soon as I leave the building, I connect to a Virtual Private Network, a locked-up network. It's just like I'm connected to the building, but I can do that in the field. Anything I can access at my desk, I can access in the field."
He said he and apartment inspection secretary Lohan work closely together, with Lohan sending out biannual inspection notices to property owners.
"Now, I'm scheduling re-inspections with the customer on the spot, and immediately, Maria can see it back here in the office," Krauss said. "I can add that to a notice, so they don't get a notice, plus a re-inspection letter, plus a follow-up letter. It's all in one notice."
Recently, Krauss performed an inspection on West Eighth Street where the tenants were present. Before, he would have to mail the notice to the landlord. Now, he can print the notice and print the envelope remotely, and then send an email to Lohan to put it all together for the mail.
"It's a done deal. It's automatically saved and shared at borough hall. The server is backed up electronically and on tape. We don't need paper files anymore," Krauss said.
Getting Paperless and Digital
At the time of the IT report, employees at remote locations lacked direct access to the borough network. IT capability was moderately-supported in the codes department. Providing network access to remote borough locations was classified as a high strategic risk for Lansdale, and was recommended by Azimuth as Lansdale’s most urgent and most important priority. Along with those high priority recommendations came implementation of work order management, deploying tablet computing, and developing technology standards.
Kunkel said the department had been talking about moving away from its archaic, paper-based system for two years.
"We were using a paper-based system. It was enhanced in 1960 by something people a long time ago call a typewriter," Kunkel said. "We were still using that system."
Kunkel said the department talked about becoming mobile, digital and automating processes; it has looked at its own systems and what could be more efficient.
"Everything in the borough is address-driven. Whether you call the police, the electric department, code enforcement, not too far in the conversation we're going to ask 'What's the address?'" Kunkel said.
The department inspects an inventory of 3,000 apartments in the borough every two years, at 1,500 apartments per year. Kunkel said an inspector will write an address 12 times a year for 1,500 apartments, or 18,000 times per year.
"It does nothing to serve our residents better," Kunkel said. "At one minute per entry, that equated to 300 man hours of efficiency you gain by eliminating that redundancy from the process. That's about 15 percent of efficiency from one process."
The reduction in paper equates to $5,000 a year in correspondence for one process, Kunkel said. He estimated an inspector uses seven sheets of paper per inspection, plus one envelope minimum and one stamp minimum.
"The machines will pay for themselves in the first 12 months, in hard costs," Kunkel said. "Over all processes of apartment inspections, issuing permits, inspection for permits, business licenses, amusement licenses, monitoring ordinances in terms of enforcement action and court action, there are a lot of processes where addresses are being entered, entered and entered again. There's a lot of efficiency to gain."
Kunkel said that prior to the technology, there was no way for an inspector to see someone performing work and know whether or not they had a permit for it.
"Now, we have access to that information," Kunkel said.
In answering a question posed by Code Enforcement and Land Planning Committee Chairman Jack Hansen, Kunkel said the department still has the ability to mail letters.
"Most of our residents and property owners just have it emailed to them," Kunkel said. "We can print a copy for you on the spot."
The improvements in the code enforcement department are a precursor to the capabilities of Lansdale’s future GIS system, and Lansdale's overall vision for the state of technology.
As far as automation, the codes department has a goal — think Wawa.
"To automate processes, it's much like the Wawa system where you press a hoagie and it is telling people in the kitchen automatically what's part of that. The UPS guy is using one, as are a lot of other companies. Why can't we do something similar?" Kunkel said. "We want to be able to type in an address and pull in the owner contact information for us. We want to be able to say, there's a high grass complaint and we need to notify the owner today, and have that automatically appear on our calendars."
Krauss added that at some point, the database will prompt Lohan that an apartment needs to be scheduled for a biannual inspection, and then the software will note that the apartment needs to be inspected two years from that point.
"Now, it's all done manually," Krauss said.
Kunkel said the department has begun the process of laying out a platform that the entire borough can build on.
"Our needs are fairly complex boroughwide. Our data needs to link to other departments: the sewer department, electric department, the school district, the county 911 system. The list goes on and on," Kunkel said.
Eventually, Leatherman and Fire Marshal Jay Daveler would all have similar desktops as the codes department. This would allow department heads and staff to review architectural and engineering plans either digitally via desktop or Bluetooth to a 55-inch monitor. Corrections can be made and emailed back to the architect on the spot.
"It's great for the electric department or sewer department. Instead of that box of prints on some rainy night when people are out of electricity, you'll have this desktop that's waterproof and you can see it anywhere, under any conditions. I love it," Krauss said.
Krauss thanked council for giving the department the ability to upgrade its technology — and add a new code enforcement staff member in 2005. Kunkel was hired as such, after 10 years as a lineman and meter technician with the electric department.
"You guys enabling us to do this technology, giving us the budget to expand, this is where we are going," Krauss said.
Furthermore, the upgrades to IT allow employees to use their skill sets more with the public, now that they will be doing less paperwork and administrative work.
"We are trying to become more customer friendly. We're driven by our customers," Krauss said. "They like dealing with codes or like dealing with community development. 'They're not giving me the runaround.' It gives us time to reach out in the community and go over an ordinance, or why we're doing this work, or why you need a permit to have this done."
Committee member and councilman Denton Burnell said the IT improvements are a prime example as to why council is making tactical investments in technology.
Borough Manager Timi Kirchner said it is a real example of "from the ground-up work" in Lansdale.
"I applaud you as our employees for your thoughtfulness as you do your job," Kirchner said, "and for moving us into the 21st century in a practical way that serves our customers well."