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At Austin’s permitting office, wait times are down, use of temps is up

Three years after a controversial report recommended massive overhauls of its permitting processes, five months after city leaders denied it more staff and nearly four months after they called for a review of its fees, Austin’s Development Services Department is charting what to do next.

The department last fall requested an additional 51 positions for 2018 for an extra $5.2 million. The request was an attempt to comply with recommendations in the Zucker Report, a 2015 review that found the city’s permitting system was beset with staffing deficiencies and massive delays.

The City Council denied the extra positions after Council Member Delia Garza raised concerns about proposed fee increases to pay for them. The council asked for the department to request them again with more information on the positions and fees.

Instead, the Development Services Department spent $573,731 on temporary workers and $134,315 on overtime in the first four months of the fiscal year to keep up with processing permits. If that spending continues on pace for the rest of the year, it would be less than half the cost of the 51 full-time hires the department sought last year.

Fee revenue totaled $12.9 million during those four months, a little under pace to bring in the budgeted $48.9 million to cover the department’s operating costs.

Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales is weighing when — or if — to resubmit the request for additional positions and whether relying on temporary workers and overtime is a resilient long-term approach.

PREVIOUS: Approved Austin 2018 budget will bring average $151 tax, fee increase

“Temporaries and overtime are a resource that we use instead of going immediately to a request for more positions,” he said. “It’s a multipronged approach as to how we meet the demands of increasing workload.”

The department expects to have a midyear request for some budget adjustments, but analysis continues on what that might be.

Also awaiting a return to the council is the somewhat related Family Homestead Initiative, which asks staff to identify all the regulations and fees that apply to expanding or remodeling single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes. The request came in response to concerns that it’s unaffordable for ordinary families to stay in their homes or remodel them.

The department last month asked for more time to run the numbers.

Even though both initiatives were hers, Garza declined to answer questions for this story or comment on their status.

Gonzales said it was tough to have staff working a lot of overtime hours, but said having temporary workers can make it easier to add or shed staff when the economy rises or dips.

Department-collected analytics show it has made strides in efficiency.

The percentages of commercial and residential plan reviews finished on time, which had hovered around 50 percent in 2016, had increased by January to 89 and 73 percent, respectively.

The wait time for a zoning consultation went from 36 minutes to nine minutes, while the percentage of phone calls answered went from 59 percent to 73 percent.

BACKGROUND: Austin outlines road map to fix building and planning departments

Those successes tell Gonzales and his fans that improvement can come from process shifts. The Real Estate Council of Austin, which has been among the groups most strongly advocating for reform in Austin permitting, did not necessarily support adding bodies unless it came with procedural changes.

“The thing we care about most is predictability,” said Geoffrey Tahuahua, vice president of government affairs for the group. “The issue we have is those fees are increasing and we’re not seeing resulting efficiency.”

He praised Gonzales for the improvements that have been made in the Development Services Department. The bigger challenge now, Tahuahua said, is to figure out how to better coordinate the process among the other nine or so city departments that also weigh in on permitting matters.

Mary Ingle, an activist and former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, took the opposite view, expressing skepticism that any process improvements will make a difference until more staff is added. Streamlining only works if there are experienced people to see it out, she said.

Plus, fees are there for a reason, she said.

“Most neighborhood people have been advocating for years that development pay for itself,” she said. “The fees should be high.”

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