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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
Planning Department boss says staff is overworked, underfunded
Despite the improving fiscal picture for the city as a whole, during Wednesday’s budget work session Director Greg Guernsey of Planning and Development Review painted a picture of a department that is overworked, overwhelmed, and underfunded.
Guernsey told the City Council that new construction applications are up 52 percent and that his department had seen an 11 percent increase in building inspections over the prior year and a six percent increase in permits issued.
The strain on the department is showing. Most notably, the percentage of initial commercial build plan reviews completed within the Land Development Code-mandated 21-day period has fallen below 40 percent this year.
“What we’re trying to do is actually improve that number to get it back up to the point where the number is a reasonable number. Sixty-five is not one, certainly, that I’m proud of. If we could get it back up to 80 or 90, that would be great. But right now, I can’t even break the 40 mark in reality,” said Guernsey.
Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards explained, “If we are not able to get more staff, then this is really where we would be. It isn’t our goal, but it is reality. So if we had more staff, it could be 90 percent or 100 percent.”
“The fact is that you have three reviewers who are reviewing 180 to 200 plans,” said Edwards. “It is a pretty astronomical picture, and one that we need to correct as soon as possible.”
It isn’t just reviewers who are overworked. All told, Guernsey counted 14 full time employees positions among the unmet needs across the department.
He also highlighted a need for an update to the fees that the department assesses – particularly those to new construction.
Contributing to the loss of revenue for the department are fees that are stuck in the 1990s. Currently, 90 percent of the department’s development fees have not changed since 1993. Guernsey noted that inflation alone has gone up about 44 percent in that same time period.
Guernsey proposed increasing the fees, as was recommended by a consultant who conducted a recently-completed fee study for the Planning and Development Review Department.
“If we were to implement, in the first year, a 25 percent increase in those fees that we are talking about it would generate about $1.3 million of revenue in that first year,” said Guernsey.
Guernsey also had one request for a Capital Improvement Project – a much-needed update to the 25-year-old Land Development Code that he estimated would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell agreed that the update to the LDC was “badly needed.”
“I assume that this is going to be a comprehensive look to modernize our code and get rid of a lot of the glitches that people complain about all the time,” said Leffingwell. “I can’t tell you strongly enough. I just think that’s a real priority item. Because we don’t want to stifle our rebounding economy with bureaucratic stuff that slows it up.”
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