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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Friday, June 4, 2021 by Jo Clifton
With Council approval, DSD to add 41 new workers
City Council on Thursday approved a staff request to hire 41 new reviewers and inspectors in the Development Services Department starting in July, with a goal of having those new employees trained and ready to work by the end of the year. The vote was 10-0, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly absent from the meeting.
City staffers told Council at Tuesday’s work session that the department simply does not have enough employees to handle the ever-increasing volume of work.
As an enterprise department, DSD is funded by fees paid by developers and contractors needing project reviews and approvals. According to information provided by staffers, the department now has sufficient funds to pay for the new employees for the current fiscal year. They plan to include funding of more than $4.4 million for these new positions in the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget. This funding “will be fully offset with a revenue increase by the same amount due to permit application volume increases, resulting in a net zero impact to DSD. To this end, the department is projecting to add the positions to meet the higher workload demands without increasing fees.”
Council Member Alison Alter, who had many questions for DSD both at Tuesday’s work session and in writing, said she understood that the department believes it will have sufficient funds to cover the new employees without the fee increase. “Therefore I wanted to be on the record that I’m going to expect DSD to deliver on making these positions work without increasing fees further. I understand the anticipation is for no fee increases this fiscal year. If a request is made for a fee increase next fiscal year or the year after, I’m going to want evidence that the fee increase is not related to this action today.”
She added that she was supporting the item because she regularly hears complaints from DSD customers about their frustrations getting projects permitted, “and this is one action we can take to address those concerns.” However, she added that she often hears complaints about receiving conflicting information from different staff members and adding new staff will not solve that problem.
Council Member Ann Kitchen added an amendment to the motion approving the new positions directing staff to “evaluate the permit review times identified for SMART Housing projects and develop a recommendation for Council consideration which would apply a prioritized review time frame for other applicable affordable housing projects, such as Affordability Unlocked and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit projects.”
Kitchen also directed staff to look at staffing in other departments involved in doing permit reviews and approval of site plans and subdivisions to make sure that those departments have sufficient staffing “to meet the recommended affordable housing prioritized review time frame.” In her motion, Kitchen asked staff to report back to Council as part of the city’s budget conversations, “no later than September 2.”
Council Member Kathie Tovo asked Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales to explain why DSD needs authorization to add the new employees this summer rather than waiting until next year’s budget is approved.
Gonzales reiterated what he said at Tuesday’s work session – that failure to bring more staff on board right away and train them now would increase the department’s backlog. He said he wants to make sure that “by the end of the year we would have every available resource to address the increase in permit applications. But we do forecast that without additional resources that we’ll have a general backlog – not just for our affordable housing projects, but for every single housing project across the city.”
Tovo said the city is experiencing “a large number of tree permit violations in several districts, including mine.” She added an amendment requiring DSD tree review staff, whose numbers will increase as a result of the added employees, to report to Council and to the Environmental Commission about how the new employees were improving that situation.
Finally, Tovo asked for an explanation of the duties of a departmental equity and inclusion program manager. She wanted to know why that person would be acting outside the city’s own Equity Office, which she said was doing “a wonderful job working with departments across the city.”
DSD Director Denise Lucas explained that the city’s equity officer had determined that “in order to make sure that our customers have an equitable experience when they engage with us … we need to enlist an equity expert to help us look at our processes to make sure that all of our customers have an equal outcome, not just those that are more affluent and have access to more resources.” She explained that the person in that position would receive guidance from the city’s equity officer, who would provide training and help the new DSD employee develop a strategy to get customers the support they need.
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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.