Wednesday, June 3, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City planning departments talk budgets

As the city’s budget process gears up, each department is making its way to City Council with its budget for the upcoming year. And in the wake of the Zucker Report, eyes are on what was once the Planning and Development Review Department.

Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey and Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales presented their financial forecasts to the Planning Commission. They also gave an overview of their respective responsibilities since the division of the Planning and Development Review Department in March.

The Development Services Department bears the brunt of the suggested increased spending from the Zucker Report. That report has suggested an additional 23 employees. But after speaking with division heads, development services is asking for 49 new full-time employees, which will cost the city just under $5 million.

Also in line with the Zucker recommendations is renovating current facilities at a cost of $1.89 million and hiring additional consultants and temporary employees at a cost of $1.24 million.

Gonzales noted that the training budget was “woefully lacking” at $60,000 for a staff of 310. Zucker recommended that budget be $535,000, but Gonzales is asking for $235,000 instead.

All of those requests total around $8.4 million for the new department. That’s the same amount of extra revenue the department earned above budget estimates last year. In all, development services saw an all-time high of $28.2 million in revenue in Fiscal Year 2015. That number is projected to stay steady or rise next year, even without taking a proposed increase in fees into account.

The report also suggests moving the department out of the General Fund and into an enterprise fund, which would mean the department wouldn’t have to compete with other departments for funding and could recoup a higher percentage of its own fees.

The department’s budget is currently $36.9 million, although $8.9 million of that is reimbursed to the department from the Watershed Protection Department and CAMPO.

In addition, Gonzales told the Planning Commission that he is looking at $3.27 million in cost drivers from wage adjustments, health insurance, financial transfers, employee transfers and a telecom project.

Though the unmet needs may seem large, they are based on recommendations in the Zucker Report, and Council has indicated that it will make the report’s findings a priority.

Gonzales told the commission that underfunding in terms of staff has been a problem for his department. For example, currently only 23 percent of initial commercial building reviews are completed within 21 days.

“You’ve heard the stories,” said Gonzales. “The wait lines are upwards of two hours at the permit center, and that’s simply unacceptable. The reality is that with the amount of activity we have, we just don’t have the staffing to support the volume of activity. We really need more support.”

Gonzales said the issues can largely be traced back to the “sheer volume of activity that we face in Austin,” which has seen increased development activity over the past six years. That trend is expected to continue, but staff levels haven’t kept up.

In comparison, the problems of what is now the Planning and Zoning Department seem tame. Currently, the budget of that department is about $6.9 million, with $3 million going toward comprehensive planning, $2 million going toward current planning and about $1.9 million going toward support services.

Last year, the department generated $213,000 more than originally projected, for a total of about $703,000 in revenue. A similar amount is projected for next year.

Guernsey explained that in this next budget cycle, wage adjustments, health insurance, transfers and CAMPO funding are all cost drivers and total about $480,000.

In terms of unmet needs, Guernsey prioritized $500,000 more for CodeNEXT consultants, $176,000 to improve the neighborhood plan process, $50,000 for Austin/San Antonio Corridor Council membership fees and $25,000 for more staff training, as recommended by the Zucker Report.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver pointed out that half of the city still had neighborhood planning to do and questioned the resources needed to not only accomplish that, but map CodeNEXT and align existing neighborhood plans with the CodeNEXT process.

“I don’t feel like we’ve really tackled this giant gorilla of paying for the planning we need to get the neighborhood plans right in alignment with CodeNEXT, and in alignment with the comp plan,” said Oliver.

Guernsey said the process has been getting smoother, and explained that the new neighborhood plan process should take under a year for each plan. When it started, he said, the process took about three years. Currently, the city has 57 neighborhood plans, and Guernsey said they were very close to having at least made an initial pass on each neighborhood, though not all of those neighborhoods have opted to adopt plans yet.

Both department heads indicated that they are looking forward to the Land Development Code rewrite as a means of simplifying the work their departments must do.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.

Zucker Report: The final analysis of the Planning and Development Review was released in May 2015. In it were numerous suggestions for the improvement of the city's planning and permitting operations, and the release of the report sparked quick changes, and led to the direct dissolution of the department into two separate departments: Planning and Zoning and Development Services.

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