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Online permitting and inspection system approved for health department

| March 22, 2022 7:00 AM

Commissioners approved the purchase of a roughly $43,000 online inspection and permitting system for the county health department on March 9.

Health officials had included the request in their wish list for American Rescue Plan Act dollars late last year. Although the eventual request was higher than expected — they initially penciled in $10,000 for the upgrade — commissioners looked favorably on the expense, saying it likely would cut down on labor costs.

“If this thing pans out, it’s going to save a considerable amount of time,” said County Commissioner Brent Teske (D-1), who acknowledged the expense of the purchase.

The new software, which comes courtesy of multinational tech firm Accela, will ease the process for compiling restaurant inspections as well as issuing and pulling septic permits. Officials also expect residents can use the portal to file complaints.

Commissioners and health department employees have expressed most interest in the septic permit aspect of the software. Officials estimate going digital could save the county about three quarters of a full time employee.

Searching for, locating and pulling permits is a time-consuming process, said Kathi Hooper, department director. And the software will tie into the county’s geographic information system, also known as GIS, meaning residents can use a map to search properties.

“I’ve been polling people … just to see the interest in this and overwhelmingly they support this,” said Nick Raines, environmental health specialist, who is spearheading the undertaking. “Some people are going to want to stick to the old school and come in and talk to us, but for the most part the people want access to this data without coming in and bothering us.”

As part of the health department’s sales pitch, they had said that the software could be expanded to incorporate other county agencies. The clerk and recorder’s office was seen as one department likely to benefit from going digital.

During a February meeting with commissioners, Raines pointed out that Missoula used the same software for planning documents and building permits. Officials with the health department have also seen potential uses at the county landfill and for the Asbestos Resource Program.

While commissioners previously indicated their willingness to go ahead with the system despite the cost, health officials did come bearing some bad news. Accela charges a $3,000 fee per user with administrative access to the system. Officials initially thought they could get away with three users and share accounts among department employees.

No dice, according to Raines.

“Apparently my negotiating skills have fallen apart completely,” he told commissioners last week, saying that Accela would not move ahead with less than five users.

That fee works out to about $15,000 a year, adjusted each year to reflect an inflation increase of 2 percent. Commissioners previously said that cost would come out of the health department’s annual budget, though they said it could share that expense as other agencies adopted the system.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) made the motion to spend the funds, which come out of local ARPA dollars, and Teske offered a second. The final vote was unanimous.

“It’s a little more expensive, but I think in the long run it will save time and money,” Teske said.