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Development Services preliminary budget asks for 50 new employees

Friday, September 7, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

According to the 2017 customer satisfaction poll by the Development Services Department, the time it takes to complete the inspection process was ranked as the most important component but had the lowest satisfaction rating.

In an effort to change that perception, the department is asking for 50 new employees. The cost of this new staff will bring the entire department’s budget up $4.8 million to the tune of $63.6 million for the 2019 fiscal year.

“We do a lot of work at Development Services, and it’s difficult to keep up with growth,” explained department Director Rodney Gonzales at the Sept. 5 meeting of the Environmental Commission.

The plan to fund the additional $4.8 million required for these positions is to change the financial funnel for the department from the General Fund, which is funded by taxes, to an enterprise fund, thereby allowing for a fee increase on inspections. For residential plan review and inspections, the fees would increase $188. For tree plan reviews and inspections, the cost would rise $144.

“This means your fees are going up in some cases (by) 300 (or) 500 percent,” said Commissioner Hank Smith. He suggested that the department look into a phased approach to enact this increase in order to avoid shocking applicants. Commissioner Andrew Creel agreed and suggested tapering fees based on project size.

“My concern is that these fees might become unreasonable for residential homeowners,” he said.

Still, no matter which way the department looked at the fees to fund employees, it was clear that more manpower was needed, according to Gonzales. Austin is growing at a rate of “two Lockharts per year,” he said, or 22,000 people on average. “A national survey does say that the Austin metro will need 114,000 new apartments within a short 12 years,” said Gonzales. “All that growth goes through our department.”

Last year alone, there were nearly 18,000 more inspections than in 2016, and with more commercial projects climbing into the sky, those numbers will continue to rise. Interestingly, the number of building permit applications has not risen as sharply. Creel noted that the increase between applications and inspections was “disproportionate.”

Gonzales explained that the reason for this is the increase in commercial projects. Unlike residential projects, commercial projects like high-rises require hundreds of inspections before they can be signed off on. With such a high demand for urban residential, Gonzales explained that the size and complexity of the projects will only continue increasing.

In light of the future construction as well as all the inspections that will be required for the buildings constructed in conjunction with the Austin Independent School District $1.05 billion 2017 bond program, the city of Austin $720 million 2016 mobility bond program, and the proposed $925 million 2018 bond program, the commission unanimously recommended the approval of the Development Services Department 2019 budget.

Photo by Fredlyfish4 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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