Wednesday, February 15, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Poll shows progress at Development Services

When Rodney Gonzales took over the Development Services Department in April 2015, the Zucker Report had reported customer survey results showing that 82 percent of respondents felt that the city’s development review and plan check processes were unnecessarily cumbersome or complex.

In addition, the report said that 81 percent of customers felt that if the processing of a project was delayed, it was not typically justifiable and could occur over minor issues.

Gonzales has worked to modernize and reorganize a department that by most accounts was disorganized, demoralized and outdated.

Anecdotally, Gonzales told the Austin Monitor that when he arrived at DSD, “I had about four to five to six calls a day” from people who wanted to complain. “Now it’s significantly reduced – maybe two calls a week,” he said.

At the same time, the department’s residential permit volume has continued to climb. According to statistics provided by the city, in 2010, the department issued 4,544 commercial permits and 7,635 residential permits.

The number of residential permits has continued to climb every year since then. In 2013, the city issued 9,503 residential permits, and that number grew to 10,675 in 2015. Last year, the department issued 11,423 residential permits. Commercial permits have not increased significantly. In 2016, the city reported 4,662 such permits.

In contrast to the 2015 report, a recent survey commissioned by the city shows that 41 percent of development services customers dealing with the plan review process reported that they were either neutral, satisfied or very satisfied with the plan review process.

However, that number fell to 30 percent for those who characterized themselves as developers/owners and 31 percent for those who identified themselves as licensed design professionals. Among those who simply designated themselves as citizens, the satisfaction level was at 32 percent.

On Tuesday, City Council heard the results of the survey, which was conducted in 2016. It showed that the highest level of dissatisfaction among customers of the plan review part of the department is with the time the review process takes to complete, as well as the fact that the process is too often delayed over minor issues.

Jason Morado of the ETC Institute, a market research firm specializing in work for local governments, told Council he had hoped to receive 400 completed surveys when he emailed a list of customers who had used development services over the previous two years. Instead, he received 1,133 completed surveys.

The people who reported the highest level of satisfaction with the plan review process were probably people with the most experience. Of those calling themselves applicant agents, 58 percent reported that they were neutral or satisfied; of those who identified as contractors or builders, 47 percent said they were neutral or satisfied.

According to the report, overall ratings for five different areas or disciplines show a wide deviation in satisfaction levels. Sixty-five percent of customers reported satisfaction with tree ordinance review, but only 36 percent said they were satisfied with subdivision review. Residential plan review was viewed favorably by 53 percent, followed by commercial plan review at 50 percent. Only 44 percent of site plan review customers reported that they were neutral or satisfied.

Overall, 69 percent of survey respondents reported that they were neutral or satisfied with the inspection division. Again, however, there was a big gap between those who called themselves applicant agents and those who called themselves developers or owners. Among applicant agents and licensed design professionals, satisfaction was reported at 89 percent and 82 percent, respectively. Only 48 percent of developers and owners, on the other hand, reported that they were satisfied.

Gonzales told Council that the plan review part of his department has been working on a pilot program with electronic site plan review. In addition to taking more time, paper storage cost the city money, and once all the data is digitized, the city will no longer need that storage space, he said.

Gonzales also said that the expedited review process should be up and running in May.

Mayor Steve Adler told Gonzales, “I think you’re doing an incredible job.”

But, the division has one important dissatisfied customer – Council Member Alison Alter. Alter told Gonzales and her colleagues that her husband, Jeremi Suri, had scheduled an inspection at their house for a specific time period last Friday, but the inspector never showed up.

Alter told the Monitor that Suri had scheduled an inspection of a new electrical plug recently installed to charge an electric vehicle. They were told that an inspector would come sometime between 7 a.m. and noon or 1 p.m. When the inspector did not show up, she said, her husband called the department “multiple times” to find out whether the inspector was coming. “They knew in the morning that they had four people out that day and the guy had 28 stops he was supposed to make.”

Although department staff knew early that Suri was number 28 and it was unlikely that his plug would be inspected that day – last Friday – they did not inform him that an inspector was coming or try to reschedule, Alter said.

Though the inspector did finally show up on Monday, it was only because of her husband’s flexible schedule as a university professor that he was able to be there on both occasions.

“I want to give Rodney and his group the benefit of the doubt that they’ve been making progress, but I’m still hearing a lot of concerns. I have a new coffee shop that opened up in my district out in the Jester area and they had issues with the permit inspectors coming out and things not getting done on time, which means delays for getting things open.”

Alter said she was particularly worried about people having to take off work to wait for an inspector who never shows up. Although her husband was able to do that twice because of his job, most people are not able to do so. She said other businesses have better processes for alerting people about whether a worker is coming to their homes.

Photo by John Flynn.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Development Services Department: A city department that reviews development and inspection services.

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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