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.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Indiana bus driver arrested on suspicion of letting students drive vehicle
Indiana bus driver arrested on suspicion of letting students drive vehicle

An Indiana bus driver was arrested Friday, accused of allowing three teenagers to drive her bus, the Chicago Tribune reported. >> Read more trending news  Joandrea McAtee, 27, was arrested by the Porter County Sheriff’s Office and charged with felony neglect of a dependent after she allegedly let three students, ages 11, 13 and...
Florence aftermath: Good Samaritan who sheltered animals during storm arrested
Florence aftermath: Good Samaritan who sheltered animals during storm arrested

A North Carolina woman was arrested Friday after authorities said she ran an illegal operation while sheltering animals during Florence, the News-Argus of Goldsboro reported. >> Read more trending news  Tammie Hedges, the founder of Crazy’s Claws N Paws in Goldsboro, was charged with 12 misdemeanor counts of practicing veterinary...
Traffic report for Monday, Sept. 24, 2018

Interstate 35 (Hays County): Slow moving striping work crews in both directions between RM 150 and Robert S. Light Boulevard from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday through Thursday nights Interstate 35 (Travis County): Alternating closures on the frontage roads in both directions between Slaughter Lane and Williamson Creek from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday through...
Community news: Austin Energy hosts small business open house Tuesday

TRAVIS COUNTY SOUTH AUSTIN Small business open house Tuesday Austin Energy will host an open house for small business owners from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at Austin Energy’s Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road. The free open house will allow business owners to exchange information, meet with staff and learn how to effectively partner with...
Cruz gets O’Rourke where he wants him — on a debate stage
Cruz gets O’Rourke where he wants him — on a debate stage

For the first time in his re-election campaign, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, right where he wanted him Friday night — on a debate stage confined behind a lectern and constricted by 90-second answers, 60-second responses and 30-second rebuttals. It forced O’Rourke to confront Cruz...
More Stories