My Tax Dollars at Work: Obtaining a Construction Permit in Marion County

I want to build a screened porch on the back of my house. I’ve always loved sitting on a porch during the cool of the evening. It’s dining al fresco minus the bugs, too.

So, after finding a great person to help build it, I had to obtain three permits to begin construction. Why three and not one? That’s just the beginning.

I tried to use the online permit service available. I spent several hours working on the application process and trying to ensure that everything was correct and legal. I found the FAQ online and it seemed like I just didn’t have everything I needed. The FAQ stated, in part (see number 25 in the list):

Permit applications can be obtained in our offices here when you submit for a review or online at
www.indygov.org/dmd/permits Inspection contact and scheduling information will be included on the
back of the permits.

Well, I tried to type in the link referenced and the webpage didn’t exist. I started to feel uneasy and thought I should give the office a call. I was handed off to voicemail, but the woman did call me the next day. She told me that I’d have to come to the office for that permit. So why does the FAQ state that I can do it online? Who knows. I also reviewed over the phone with her what I would need to bring with me in order to obtain the permit. I was lacking a site map, but she told me that site maps were available to print in their office.

I arrived at the office a little after noon, armed with all of my paperwork. As I signed the sign-in sheet, the desk clerk took a preliminary look at my paperwork. I asked if I had everything I needed to obtain the permit. He looked over everything and even pulled up the site map on his computer; he said that the map was sized too large to print, but I could “sweet talk” the permit granter into printing it as 11″x17.” He wrote down the ID number for me so the permit granter could print it when I met with him. Then I asked about the wait. He pointed at a guy standing next to the desk and said, “he’s next in line and he’s been here since nine AM.”

I sat to wait. The ambience was lees than thrilling. The hard plastic chairs were unforgiving and the building was dilapidated. I actually left in the pouring rain just to sit in my car for a few minutes and be comfortable. I made phone calls, to do lists, and tried to stay occupied. Finally, at a little after 4:00PM, my name was called. I sat down with the permit granter and tried to put on a brave, smiling face; I’m sure he deals with plenty of crabby people.

He reviewed what I had and told me that I didn’t have everything I needed. He told me the site map was impossible to print and that there were other documents I lacked. Please keep in mind: I read their website, talked to the permit “expert” on the phone, and spoke with the desk clerk upon arrival. I started to say, “you mean I have to come back?” As I said it, I thought of having to endure another four-hour wait the next day. I was tired and knew I just couldn’t do it. My hormones surged, and tears welled in my eyes. (As a side note, I hate crying in public; it seems weak and silly, especially in such a non-life-threatening drama as this.)

The permit granter felt for me, and spent the next hour helping me put together the documents I needed from each source. We laughed a bit and he told me how proud he is to be a civil servant, but that it’s not easy. People give him a hard time all day and it’s a thankless job. I apologized for having incomplete documents; I told him how hard I’d tried to have everything ready, but the three sources I’d tried were simply wrong. After all his hard work on my behalf, I shook his hand and thanked him for helping me.

To pay my bill, I had to take a receipt to a cashier. Even that was difficult. It took the cashier a full five minutes to process the charges on the slip, even though the total was at the bottom and I was using a credit card. Imagine it taking that long to ring one item at a grocery store!!

So after five grueling hours, I walked away with all three of the permits I needed. The whole process had been a complete nightmare except for one hard-working guy.  There are only four permit granters for all of Marion County.  That’s only about 32 permits daily, based on my hour-long experience, for all of the million residents of Marion County.

Why isn’t there an easier way to obtain these permits?  Besides the horrendous waste of my time, I also shelled out about $330.  This kind of inefficiency and overpricing is what economists would characterize as a product switch (pardon my lack of knowledge of the exact term).  Basically, if the cost of televisions skyrockets beyond consumers’ reach, they will not buy TVs anymore; they will switch to books or movies.  The permit process is similar because for that much money and time, many people will forego the permit and just pay someone to build it without a permit.  Creating obstacles to compliance is the easiest way to encourage people to break the law.

The moral of the story is: if you want a permit, pack a bag.  And most of all, we need LESS GOVERNMENT.