Volusia County, Florida, about an hour’s drive from Orlando, Florida, is located north of the I-4 corridor which nearly dissects the peninsula from east to west. Outside of Florida, the county may be best known for its Atlantic Ocean coastline and famous beaches, including Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500. The county’s western boundary is the St. John’s River, the longest river in Florida, significant for its commercial and recreational use. Today, the county has a population of about 600,000 people and is continuing to grow. Most of the county’s population lives in the eastern part of the county, along the coast.
The county government is responsible for managing any part of the county not incorporated in one of the county’s 16 municipalities and the beach along the coastline. Additionally, the county is responsible for minimum standards for land use, building, protecting state-mandated endangered species, especially inland. The county manages processes such as land development and permitting for those municipalities in the county that cannot do it on their own. In some such cases, the county also manages these matters for the municipalities on a contract basis. Since 2008, the county has done all of that and more using Amanda.
During that time, Mary Schnebly, who is the Business Process and Technology Manager for the department and project manager for Amanda, has spearheaded the county’s use of Amanda. “A lot of people here at Volusia County call me Amanda’s mother. I do refer to Amanda as ‘her’ and they know I have a passion for Amanda because I don’t know of anything that she can’t do.”
Mary first started working for Volusia County 22 years ago and was working in the county’s land development department when the county first selected Amanda. In her previous role, she was responsible for working with subdivisions, reviewing site plans, right-of-way use permits, and more. During the implementation phase, she was the one who designed all the folders in Amanda that the land development team would need to use. Shortly after go-live, Mary was tapped to start managing Amanda for the county. As she says, “I cringe when I say, ‘just Amanda’ because it’s a heck of a lot more than most people really know or understand. I often tell colleagues you will not find a single thing that you can think of that cannot be done in Amanda. It’s amazing.”
Mary put her previous experience with the land office to work and over time, helped the county’s planning and zoning departments in redesigning their folders from the ground up using the design she had initially done for the land development department. That helped ensure that various departments that often needed or shared the same data also had folders that were the same. Because of the enterprise capability of Amanda, the county was able to use the software to manage almost all the regulatory type functions they were providing for county citizens and residents.
Digitization was one of the biggest changes that using an enterprise software system brought about for the county. Mary described how work was done before Amanda, “Prior to Amanda, most data exchange was via distribution of paper or email. Multiple software programs were used independently of one another. Most areas utilized manual processes and paper files. Review and inspection reports were all done manually. Customer service suffered due to the lack of readily available data. Calls from residents often had to be transferred multiple times because no one on staff had access to other areas’ information. That meant we were sending customers from office to office to obtain answers to their questions, and our staff could not provide accurate, timely information. Based on my team’s experience at the time, it could easily take us 45 minutes to track down the answer to a simple question from a citizen.”
Before deciding to implement Amanda, the county was using a legacy software system and a mainframe. As a result, permitting, code compliance, contractor licensing, land development, and much more were done using different systems. And there was yet another system for payment of fees. “We at most used an Excel spreadsheet for zoning and comprehensive planning,” said Mary. All of this generated a tremendous amount of paper as well—from contractors filing plans and refiling new ones, inspectors developing paper reports, and more.
For example, for a land development project, an applicant had to file 16 signed and sealed complete sets of civil engineered plans and related documents. These would be routed to various county departments for feedback, which was often collected in memo form. That feedback had to be consolidated and formatted. It took an enormous amount of time.
Today, with Amanda, a developer needs only to file one paper copy and one digital copy (and the paper copy stays with the land development office to be returned to the applicant with approval stamps when the project is approved). All other departments review digital copies and share feedback with all departments within Amanda. Amanda allows easy tracking of the approval process and tracking of feedback. “Basically, before Amanda, we were killing trees with the amount of paper we were requiring and using and as a county we have environmental standards!” said Mary.
She estimates that with the cost of all the paper that was saved and all the efficiency that using Amanda has brought to county operations, the county easily recouped their original investment in Amanda in 18–24 months.
Now the county can meet most citizen requests online. From finding a business tax receipt to requesting a building permit, residents can request what is needed through a portal. And the use of the portal goes way beyond building and development—environmental permits, special use permits, contractor licensing and more is managed online. Anything for which there was previously a paper application is now handled online. Additionally, several departments including planning, zoning, development, building permits, contractor licensing, code enforcement, environmental development engineering, roads and bridges, solid waste, stormwater management, and utilities are all working on the same Amanda system.
Digitization, a common dataset, and delivering services online has made the county employees’ jobs easier and helped them work more efficiently. Even after Amanda was first installed in 2008 and inspectors were outfitted with Toughbooks, most inspectors would go into the field with a clipboard and paper and make their inspection notes on paper. They would return to the office to enter their inspection notes into a computer.
Today, the same inspectors carry a tablet to inspections, enter their reports and findings online and directly into Amanda. When they need to take photos, they take those on the tablet and upload them from the field directly to Amanda. The process is much more efficient, easier for the inspectors, and helps complete inspections more quickly, which benefits county residents and developers.
All this has helped a team that issues between 10,000 and 12,000 building permits annually and adds 30,000 to 35,000 folders to records in Amanda each year, to be much more efficient, and better focused on providing great service to the county’s citizens.
The Volusia team is also able to grant access to necessary data to external agencies such as the municipalities in the district, the Sheriff’s Office, the Volusia County School Board, and utility districts throughout the county. Amanda facilitates a closer collaboration of the county with the municipalities. When new building projects come up near the county/municipal boundaries, the Sheriff’s Office is able to access the building plans in the event of an emergency, and school boards and utility districts can be alerted when a planning or development decision is likely to affect their constituents.
This sort of integration allows the county to provide robust services to citizens, especially regarding information about property records in the county. Using Amanda, Volusia County lets residents search for all the publicly available property records the county has. When those records are housed with one of the 16 municipalities, the county can provide “warm” links to the city department that has the information, including phone numbers and email addresses. “We are able to provide that helpful level of detail because we have the information in Amanda,” continued Mary. “Our citizen doesn’t have to go to a city’s website, try to figure out who to talk to, etc. We give them the information they need. And we update that information every two weeks.”
Mary shared that an innovative thing they have been able to do with Amanda is programming the software to poll the Florida state contractor licensing database nightly. The software can analyze any contractors working in the county who have had licenses suspended or revoked. This automatically updates the county’s systems so that the contractor cannot apply for or pull permits online until their license is in good standing again. “Amanda also automatically emails our county’s chief building officer and our head of licensing so that they are aware of the issue”. All of this keeps residents safe and the county in compliance, and the software manages everything automatically. “Best of all,” reports Mary, “We were able to build all that dynamically in a day.”
The Volusia county team has recently created a new functionality that enabled the planning department to grant conditional use permits for permitting restaurants to allow customers to have dogs in designated areas outdoors. Now the team is setting up Amanda to do a similar nightly query of a different state database of hotel and restaurant licenses that will make sure that restaurants in the county that have a conditional use permit have a current license (not expired or revoked) and that the name of the restaurant is the same. The conditional use permit which the county grants depends on whether the restaurant’s state license is current or not. So, this new functionality will allow the Volusia county planning team to make sure that all the conditional use permits are current and valid.
The county bases its building permit costs and reviews for new construction on calculated construction costs. A developer will enter an estimated construction cost for a new structure, and a county examiner will check that against tables in Amanda to ensure, based on square footage and use category of the structure, that calculated cost is an accurate estimate. The information in the tables is provided by the International Code Council (ICC) and it is updated twice a year. Today, the county teams are downloading new spreadsheets twice a year from ICC, and then updating the tables they have in Amanda. “A real pain to have done,” describes Mary. “One of the things my team is finding a way to do is have Amanda go to the database, look for the update, pull it over if it’s there, and alert us that an update has been made,” she continued.
Mary and the entire Volusia county team regularly think about ways to use Amanda to continue improving customer service for county residents. They are actively looking at how they can implement a 311-type system to help answer citizens’ questions that come in through Amanda. They are even exploring the possibility of creating an ‘ask an expert’ type system—sort of like an online chat—where a question received online automatically comes up on the screen belonging to the right county employee who can answer. Mary and her team are also considering setting up a queuing program so that when a citizen has to come to a county office, for example, to the Department of Motor Vehicles—that person could get ‘in-line’ on their smartphone before they arrive at the office. This would shorten the waiting time for citizens and provide them with a better experience.
Volusia County has effectively leveraged the power of Amanda to share data across departments and jurisdictions, in turn streamlining county operations, empowering their mobile workforce, and ultimately improving service for county citizens and residents. If your government needs the support of a modern and powerful enterprise platform, we would love to help. Contact us to learn more.