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Austin One Stop Shop service slow but slowly improving, audit finds

Thursday, September 3, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

The city’s One Stop Shop (OSS) office received a less-than-stellar report card from the city auditor. In a report presented to the City Council Audit and Finance Committee last week, auditors reported that the Austin OSS fell short in many areas, including customer service, communication, timeliness and ensuring compliance with the city’s land development code. In essence, the OSS isn’t doing a good job serving developers and remodelers who use its services, or the taxpayers who fund it.

 

Austin’s OSS staff can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. OSS offices have popped up in cities across the country in recent years to streamline increasingly complex development review processes. While it sounds good in theory, tight city budgets, changing land use codes and overworked planners have prevented One Stop Shops from significantly speeding up the permitting process.

 

“Is there anyone in the U.S. that gets it right?” asked Council Member Bill Spelman during the meeting.

 

Henderson, Nevada was identified in the best practice study,” replied Joan Ewell, the city auditor in charge of a recent audit of the OSS.

 

Henderson, Nevada!” exclaimed Spelman in mock celebration.

 

Austin’s OSS was created in 2004 to provide a single location for residents and developers to apply for and obtain required permits for building construction and remodeling projects. The OSS, which was until recently managed by the Watershed Protection Department, is designed to maximize efficiency of city resources and ensure compliance with development codes. The department was reorganized in late July, with development review functions being transferred to the Planning and Development Review Department (previously known as the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department).

 

“(One Stop Shop employees) are not only serving people that are building, they’re serving residents overall,” said Council Member Sheryl Cole, who chairs the Audit and Finance Committee. “They’re making sure that the codes are being implemented properly.”

 

The office brings together 14 boards and commissions involved in project review and permitting, including the Building and Standards Commission, the Historic Landmark Commission and the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission.

 

Among the OSS audit findings:

 

  • OSS tools for communicating with customers do not provide sufficient assistance to proactively increase the likelihood of compliance with the LDC,” the report states. Specifically, the OSS Web site lacks pertinent information and is not user-friendly compared to other cities’ OSS sites.

  • The OSS lacks sufficient mechanisms to ensure that codes are interpreted consistently throughout the office.

  • OSS management lacks a process to communicate code changes to staff.

  • The office has not met review turnaround times required by the Land Development Code.

  • Approvals of exceptions to Land Development Code requirements have not been adequately tracked to ensure consistency in granting those exceptions.

  • Customer satisfaction with the OSS is low. According to a 2008 survey, 42 percent of OSS customers indicated they were satisfied with the office’s service.

  • Too many fees are being waived. The OSS waived $3.2 million in fees for fiscal year 2008, representing 14 percent of potential OSS fee revenue.

In the OSS’s defense, the audits points out a number of factors affecting the office’s ability to adequately serve the public.

 

  • The OSS has been slowed down by recent, complex changes in the Land Development Code  – including the McMansion Residential Standards, passed in 2006, and the Commercial Design Standards, approved in 2007.

  • The OSS is understaffed and overworked. The office’s job vacancy rate is 14 percent, with 235 staffers doing the job of 271. And, data show that OSS staffers have a heavier workload compared to other cities. Plus, staff turnover is high.

  • Improvements to the OSS Web site have been on hold pending an overall redesign of the city’s Web site.

  • The OSS is still fairly new and continues to evolve.

The city auditor has issued 29 recommendations to improve the OSS. The responsibility for OSS previously was that of Victoria Li, director of the Watershed Protection. But those duties were transferred to Greg Guernsey, who in late July became director of the Planning and Development Review Department. Both Li and Guernsey concurred with 25 recommendations and partially concurred with three others. Their response included an action plan to implement the recommendations.

 

Li and Guernsey did not concur with one recommendation — to provide evening hours for residential plan submissions – because of cost and building security concerns. However, the OSS has plans to develop an online plan submittal system, which will provide 24/7 service.

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