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Less than three weeks since Senate Republicans voted to dump the state’s former agriculture secretary, storm clouds may be gathering for another cabinet secretary whose department has weathered criticism about how quickly it is completing its duties.

A number of Republican senators are closely watching Dawn Crim, the leader of the Department of Safety and Professional Services, due to concerns over the department’s handling of its regulatory responsibilities, but also based on unsubstantiated claims over her professional conduct for which they were not able to provide evidence.

Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, chairman of the committee tasked with advancing Crim’s nomination to the full Senate, said he has no plans to hold a vote on Crim, meaning she will likely continue to serve with the potential for being ousted looming for the foreseeable future.

“We’re just not sure she’s the right person at this point,” Kapenga said in an interview. “There’s concerns that the job is not being done adequately.”

Another Republican member of the committee charged with advancing Crim’s nomination — Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend — expressed doubts about Crim’s handling of the department.

“I’m not comfortable right now, that’s where I’d leave it,” Craig said when asked whether he would confirm Crim if a vote were held today.

When asked whether he would vote for Crim if her nomination were brought to the Senate floor, Kapenga said he doesn’t know.

On thin ice

Given that Republican concerns over former Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff’s handling of his department led to the Senate firing him, concerns over DSPS’s performance could spell trouble for Crim’s confirmation prospects.

Pfaff’s firing was the first time in at least decades the Senate has ousted a governor’s cabinet pick. Gov. Tony Evers lamented the move, saying it created a chilling effect for unconfirmed cabinet secretaries.

Crim is already on thin ice. The day the Senate fired Pfaff, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters Crim, as well as Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson and Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm, also may have trouble getting confirmation support from enough Republican senators.

Other Republican senators with concerns about Crim’s department include Senate President Roger Roth, of Appleton; Andre Jacque, of De Pere; Devin LeMahieu, of Oostburg; Dan Feyen, of Fond du Lac; and Dale Kooyenga, of Brookfield.

Feyen, Roth, LeMahieu, Kapenga and Kooyenga sent a letter to Evers and Crim on Thursday writing that they are “very concerned” about the time it takes for the department to review commercial construction plans to ensure compliance with Wisconsin laws and regulations.

But beyond those complaints, Kapenga expressed concerns over uncorroborated claims about the secretary’s professional conduct.

“There’s also been some concerns that the professional demeanor may not be what it should be,” Kapenga said. “Just that her behavior is not necessarily as professional as what some people would like. We’ve had complaints about it, or we’ve heard complaints about it.”

When pressed repeatedly, neither Kapenga nor his office would produce any documentation or other evidence about his claims regarding Crim’s behavior.

Kapenga did, however, seek to clarify his comments in a later statement.

“While I personally have not had many interactions with Secretary Designee Crim, individuals that regularly work with (the) agency, as well as within the agency, have expressed concerns to my office with how the agency is being managed,” Kapenga said. “We have heard complaints that licenses and plans are not being processed in a timely manner, rules are being applied inconsistently and that staff morale is low. It is incumbent upon us as a committee to carefully consider all information before proceeding with a vote, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Democrats respond

Crim said staff morale has been low due to “insufficient resources and increasing demand for services across all divisions.”

The department said it has lowered credentialing fees, adjusted policies to expedite license processing, made adjustments to address plan review delays and reduced backlogs in medical case processing.

Kapenga’s comments have incensed some Democrats who say they’ve heard no such complaints about Crim and that it’s unfair for Republicans to allow speculation of Crim’s conduct without providing any evidence.

“I don’t believe it’s fair … to just leave them in limbo, trying to set them up for failure, or trying to just find a reason to hang their hat on after what they did with Pfaff, just to try to justify putting their ducks in order to not support someone,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. “Make a decision, let them do their job, and move on.”

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Taylor said she hasn’t heard any complaints about the department, and said she has no reason to think Crim should not be confirmed.

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, said Crim is an experienced leader who is engaged in the community.

“She brings a wealth of energy,” Stubbs said. “What people in the state of Wisconsin decided to do was vote for change, and Dawn is change.”

Record cleared

Crim has faced criticism for her conduct before. In March, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Crim, a former assistant coach for the UW women’s basketball team, was charged in 2005 with felony child abuse. The charge resulted in a deferred prosecution and the record being removed from the state’s online circuit court record system.

Some Republican senators weren’t so quick to criticize Crim. Roth met with Crim earlier this week about concerns over plan review, and said he was pleased with the outcome. Still, Roth is planning to meet with Crim again and will be watching to see how the department addresses the plan review delays.

“I think it would be too much to say her confirmation rides on this,” Roth said. “This is a process. We want to see that these individuals are competent, qualified and above reproach.”

Delays reported

Kapenga wrote to Crim last Thursday seeking answers as to why it has taken the department so long to review commercial and industrial construction plans to ensure compliance with Wisconsin laws and regulations.

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Contractors for months have complained about the delays, contending that they have created barriers to the construction process, leading in some cases to projects being put on hold.

“I believe that this is unacceptable,” said Stan Johnson, president of Manitowoc-based A.C.E. Building Service, Inc. “Normal plan approvals should not take this long, and I don’t understand why it can’t be changed.”

Johnson told the State Journal the department earlier this year projected wait times of 10 to 12 weeks to review commercial construction plans, resulting in projects being put on hold for as much as four weeks to accommodate delays in the plan review process. Previously, he said, he’s been accustomed to wait times of six to eight weeks.

Johnson admitted he experienced troublesome delays during last year’s construction season, when DSPS was under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, but that the department had quickly addressed the problem.

Walker and Republican lawmakers created the department in the 2011-13 budget by combining responsibilities of the former Commerce Department with the Department of Regulation and Licensing. It’s biennial budget then was $132.3 million with 369.6 full-time equivalent positions.

In the current 2019-21 budget the department’s funding is $118.5 million with 237.1 positions.

Longer reviews

DSPS data show it has generally taken the department longer than under the Walker administration to finish reviewing plans. The department provided internal data showing the length of time it takes to complete reviews for commercial construction plans, plumbing plans and fire suppression systems, among other things. The department was unable to provide a breakdown of time to complete commercial plan reviews.

The data for available plan reviews show that while the total number of plans reviewed by the department have declined between the first half of 2017 and 2019 from 4,639 to 3,997 — a roughly 14% decrease — the average time it has taken for the department to review each plan has ticked up from 25 calendar days to 39 days, a roughly 59% increase.

Still, there was a significant uptick in the time to complete the reviews under the Walker administration. According to the department, it took an average of 36 days to complete the reviews in the first half of 2018 -- a nearly 47% increase compared to 2017-- even though the total number of reviews completed fell from 4,639 in 2017 to 4,329 in 2018.

The department said the figures provide an incomplete picture of the time to complete plan reviews because they can be scheduled, canceled, rescheduled and switched to priority plan reviews, the department’s expedited service for an extra fee. Still, the data represent the best estimate the department could provide to illustrate the delays.

Further, in documents the Department of Administration sent to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, it admitted DSPS wasn’t meeting goals and took as much as 12 weeks to review complex construction plans.

DSPS has suggested one reason for the delays could be that several experienced plan review staff retired between 2014 and 2016. But the department also argues staff reductions and denials of hiring authority have hamstrung its ability to address the issue, and said plan review wait times of 10 to 16 weeks weren’t unusual during the Walker era.

The department says it is working to address the problem by approving overtime for staff to review the plans and bringing in retired workers, in addition to finding efficiencies.

The state budget allowed for the department to hire two additional commercial building plan reviewers, and it has authorized 3,516 hours of overtime in 2019 in the Division of Industry Services, 85% of which went for plan reviewers.

A department spokeswoman said the department has been in contact with concerned lawmakers and contractors, but that it has not set explicit goals, though they hope to improve their processes to get average plan review time under a month.

“Our data shows that overall plan review processing timing is fairly comparable to that of last year,” Crim said in a statement. “However, from my earliest days here, I set out to identify improvements to the existing processes and staffing model. I believe we can work more efficiently and more effectively than the agency has in the past to better serve our customers.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the total time for the DSPS to complete plan reviews began to increase in the last year of Scott Walker's administration.]

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