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Audit finds ongoing delays, data problems for Development Services Department
The Office of the City Auditor has found that the city’s Development Services Department is still failing to meet on-time and customer satisfaction goals in its permitting process, even after making changes suggested in a 2015 report that found profound problems with local planning and development processes.
The audit also found that Development Services still has issues with its data collection methods for building plans, which made it unable to track review times or identify what parts of the review contribute to delays that have become a frequent complaint in the building and development community. The Zucker report produced 462 recommendations for how to improve customer satisfaction by shortening the review process and addressing portions of the city code that are seen as prolonging the plan reviews most often. The bulk of those recommendations were directed toward Development Services, which was split off from the Planning and Zoning Department in a reorganization that followed the Zucker report.
City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee adopted the audit at its Wednesday meeting, where members expressed concern over the lingering issues with Development Services, which is expected to move into a new building next year.
Council Member Alison Alter said the new positions in DSD approved by Council last year, some of which are still unfilled, were intended to make the department improve its performance.
“I was disturbed and disappointed by the information in this audit. It was my impression from previous meetings and briefings on this department that we were on an improvement track and making steady progress,” she said. “Since I came on Council we have invested in the DSD building, which is not yet operational. We made major investments last year in staff so it was disappointing to receive this audit. Some of the findings point to a delay in hiring additional staff for the department … other findings don’t seem to point to that for the shortcomings.”
Development Services Director Denise Lucas told Alter a revision in job descriptions caused a delay in some of the hiring, with all positions expected to be filled in 60 days. Lucas said there are still problems with identifying the cause of delays in the plan review process, but said 66 steps to make improvements in the department’s performance are also on pace for completion by the end of the year.
Rodney Gonzales, the former Development Services director and current assistant city manager in charge of economic opportunity and affordability, said the department is moving closer to meeting its targets for “on-time” reviews.
“We typically speak about our processes being on time rather than fast,” he said. “We feel that if we go fast that we might be more prone to error, and so we always seek a time review target of 90 percent, but of course we have to have the resources to meet that time review target.”
Alter said the ongoing delays in the plan review process will create even more problems for the city next month when a new state law requiring 30-day approval of site plans for subdivisions goes into effect.
“Can you help me understand how we should be thinking about the finding of the audit with the ordinance changes we will be considering at our next meeting to meet the new state deadline requirements?” she said. “It seems to me we have a problem meeting our own deadlines, but now we are going to have a much more ambitious set of requirements for that segment of our review. I don’t see a path to get there at that pace.”
Gonzales said the department’s new hires will provide needed help to meet the state’s requirements, and that weekend and overtime shifts will be necessary.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.
Development Services Department: A city department that reviews development and inspection services.