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City works to build trust in wake of Zucker Report

Thursday, April 9, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

On Wednesday, Austinites had a chance to address the Zucker Report publicly for the first time.

Developers, neighborhood advocates and other stakeholders offered their feedback on the report and the development process in two meetings, and heard from Zucker Systems President Paul Zucker about his analysis.

Though most who spoke did so to reiterate their concerns, there were some bright spots amid the complaints.

“I think your report has given hope to residents of Austin,” said Tom Adams, who identified himself as an Austin resident currently going through the permitting process. He said that in his neighborhood association, people have been emailing about how the report might lead to being able “to do the things we need to do to our homes in order to improve them.”

Though the Planning and Development Review Department, which the report examined, no longer exists, both departments that once comprised it were represented at the meeting. Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey apologized for not making some of the improvements fast enough. He also said that he looked forward to having more time to dedicate to the CodeNEXT process, which he hoped would garner the same level of enthusiasm.

Development Services Department acting Director Rodney Gonzales introduced himself to the crowd, saying he had been “leading the charge as of Monday.”

“It’s time for change,” said Gonzales. “People in this room feel like the trust isn’t there, feel like the respect isn’t there, feel like you’ve been lied to, in some cases. … My job is to win back that (trust) and to win back that respect, to show you that we are going to be a very different department in terms of service delivery, in terms of consistency, and in terms of getting the job done quickly.”

He emphasized that staff was eager to take up the challenge, adding, “The next step is action.”

Trust was a big theme during the afternoon discussion of the Zucker Report, but there were also more tangible concerns. Specifically, the report asks for 21 new positions in the departments and $4 million more in funding.

“Four million dollars will not solve this problem. But you will not solve this problem without $4 million,” said Zucker.

In addition to the funding increase, Zucker also recommends an economic restructuring that would move development funding from the General Fund, where it competes against police and fire budgets, among others, to an enterprise fund. The report also suggests that a reserve account be established for the city’s One Stop Shop, with a target to build that reserve to $22 million.

Zucker pointed out that, over the past three years, revenue from the Planning and Development Review Department had been an estimated $11 million, $8 million and $10-$15 million (sequentially), and that the city could use that money to improve the department instead of sending it back into the General Fund. As written in the executive summary of the Zucker Report, “In our experience, the development community is willing to pay for good service, but their fees should be used to improve that service.”

Though both department directors and Zucker emphasized that improvements could — and should — begin right away, it is clear that the topic of department(s) reform will be a point of discussion for some time.

“There are going to be a lot of hard decisions to make during the budget process in terms of service delivery for this department,” said Gonzales.



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