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Lilly Rockwell
By Lilly Rockwell February 4, 2016

Adler, council steer city closer to improved city permitting

Last year, we rated Mayor Steve Adler's campaign promise to make city permitting easier In the Works after Adler and the Austin City Council directed city staff to act on recommendations in a consultant's report critical of how the city reviews and approves development requests.

But that was nearly 10 months ago. Let's take another look at the status of Adler's promise.

Earlier we reported that Adler made strides in the first half of 2015 toward improving the city's oversight of property development ranging from major home remodeling jobs to housing subdivisions and commercial developments.

But officials tasked with those duties also were routinely criticized for poor customer service, including slow response times.

A lot happened in spring 2015 starting with the March 2015 release of a city-commissioned report by Zucker Systems containing more than 400 recommendations for how to improve permitting and development services. In turn, City Manager Marc Ott split the Planning and Development Review Department into two departments: Planning and Zoning and Development Review, shortly renamed Development Services. Ott brought in someone with a fresh perspective to run Development Review with the former head of the planning and development department focusing on zoning and land-use issues.

Then, in April 2015, Adler won the council's approval of a resolution telling Ott to detail his plans for addressing problems in the departments.

An action plan and hirings

On July 10, 2015, the Development Services Department released a 204-page memo detailing its "action plan" for following up on the Zucker recommendations, which included a request for $2.8 million primarily for more staff; council members subsequently agreed to all but $100,000 of that in the 2016 city budget, city spokeswoman Sylvia Arzola told us by email.

In January 2016, Development Services applied the funds to filling 17 new positions in areas like its customer service call center and its site plan review division.

The mayor's promise

Let's get to what Adler specifically called for in a 2014 campaign white paper.

First, he called for the department to adopt a paperless system in which people apply for permits or submit site plans and pay related fees--all entirely online.

Even before Adler was elected, the department was taking steps to implement a paperless system. By March 2015, the department had launched the "Austin Build + Connect" web portal for trade contractors to pay for required construction permits.

But more happened after that, in part due to the blistering criticisms found in the Zucker report about poor customer service and bad management.

For instance, according to Arzola, the department plans to:

  • Expand "Austin Build + Connect" to 27 additional types of permits, eliminating the need for anyone to fax in requests, starting in February 2016.

  • Convert to an interactive queuing system that allows customers to manage their wait time online, starting in spring 2016. This allows someone on their way to personally apply for a permit to get in line that same day before arriving.

  • Update and redesign, by June 2016, more than 100 permit applications to make them fillable online.

  • Allow developers, by September 2016, to submit site plans entirely online, a project that is supposed to be complete.

In his campaign, Adler also called for the department to have "improved training and management." There wasn't a lot of detail in Adler's campaign white paper as to what this meant. The paper made a general call for "more resources and better tools" for  the department, incentives for staff to improve service and "management policies (that) should address ways to recognize their efficiency and dedication."

Arzola noted that some of the additional funding approved in 2015 went toward increasing the training budget. That meant, she said, additional customer service training and customized technical training, such as learning math concepts or conflict resolution.

In August 2015, the city rehired Zucker Systems, authors of the critical report that touched off the council's April 2015 directives to Ott. The firm's new assignment: Study the various city departments engaged in the development review process. For instance, the Transportation or Watershed Protection departments are often involved in development decisions.

Adler also called for creating an "expedited review team" for site plan approvals, perhaps with a focus on multifamily housing, within the development department with an emphasis on "streamlined and consolidated reviews to improve customer service." To our inquiry, Arzola said that the department is working on an expedited permitting program for commercial and residential plan reviews. She predicted "more information" in early 2016.

Additional turns

The Zucker report and subsequent efforts to revamp the permitting processes stem from efforts started before Adler's election, but Adler played a role in moving action along. For instance, he sponsored the resolution asking the city manager to say how he planned to implement the Zucker recommendations.

Notably, Adler's office took the lead in defining what "success" means for the planning and development departments. Adler indicated he wanted to be sure that there was agreement between the City Council and the department on expected response times and desired levels of customer service..  "We've been going back and forth with city staff and the manager to come up with these metrics," Adler said. "They have now given us what they think is their final list."

By email, mayoral aide Brandi Clark-Burton shared a Sept. 18, 2015, document listing "success metrics," goals like reducing wait times on permits pulled by electricians or plumbers to 25 minutes or less and finishing residential site plan reviews on time 90 percent of the time.

Adler said: "I wanted to avoid the position six months from now and 18 months from now where the staff says we were successful and the development community says 'no you weren't.' "

City permitting could be getting easier, yet a lot remains unsettled. For this promise, we're sticking with our previous rating, In the Works.

In the Works — This indicates the promise has been proposed or is being considered.

We wrote this April 10, 2015:

During the 2014 campaign, Steve Adler posted a policy paper on "Addressing the Affordability Crisis," outlining steps to end permitting delays that can drive up housing costs.

A plank of that platform called for overhauling the way the city issues permits for everything from room additions to new subdivisions, noting the current system "often takes too long and costs too much."

"We need to simplify the regulations, permitting requirements and processing time for homeowners and existing small businesses that seek to remodel or expand," Adler wrote in the policy paper, which was posted on his campaign website. "Austin's cumbersome permitting process and complicated land use code are culpable not only for our worsening shortage of affordable housing, they frequently cause small business owners to decide against expanding their business."

To that end, he called for a fully computerized paperless system and providing the training that staffers need to assist applicants. He also suggested creating an "Expedited Review Team" of trained staff from all relevant departments that could provide more timely decisions to "repeat customers … who will pay a premium for faster service." And he emphasized the need for a streamlined consolidated process for homeowners and developers alike.   

The Zucker report

After taking office, Adler was helped along in this promise with the March 2015 release of the Zucker report, a more-than-700-page review of the city's planning and permitting department. This report documented extensive problems and recommended more than 400 changes -- some of them touching on Adler's original pledge for improved training, money to hire more staff and expedited reviews of permit applications.  

A week after the report was posted, City Manager Marc Ott split the Planning and Development Review Department into two departments: Planning and Zoning, to focus on zoning cases and long-term planning; and Development Review, to run the much-criticized Permit Center, plan reviews and inspections.

Shortly after that, the mayor was a prime sponsor of a resolution the City Council unanimously approved April 2, 2015, directing Ott to release recommendations by June 30, 2015, on how to tackle the "challenges and inefficiencies" in the planning and permitting departments. The resolution told the city manager to address:

•    Improving the utility of the city's "one-stop shop" permitting office to improve customer service, responsiveness and communication;

•    Improve engagement with neighborhoods, environmental groups, small business owners and other stakeholders;

•    Recommend metrics for performance goals on reducing permit backlogs, applying rules consistently and improved customer service);

•    Recommend policy and budget changes and any tools to implement reforms.

Adler's wide-ranging promise hasn't been fulfilled. But he has led the council in pressing for improvements to permitting outlined in the Zucker report, some of them echoing his own calls for reform.

We rate this Promise In The Works.

Our Sources

Web page, "Zucker Draft Final Report," City of Austin, Planning and Development Review Department, March 2015

Document, Austin City Council resolution related to carrying out recommendations in draft Zucker final report, adopted by the council April 2, 2015

Adler-O-Meter update, "Adler-backed resolution calls for city manager to make permitting recommendations," PolitiFact Texas, April 10, 2015

Interview, Mayor Steve Adler, Dec. 30, 2015

City of Austin Development Services Department, "Development Services Department Progress Toward Streamlining and Enhancements to Customer Service," (received by email from city of Austin spokeswoman Sylvia Arzola, Jan. 22, 2015)

City of Austin Mayor Steve Adler's office, "Development Services Department,"  (received by email from mayoral aide Brandi Clark-Burton, Jan. 21, 2015)

News stories, Austin American-Statesman, "Controversial Zucker report released on Austin's planning department," March 6, 2015; "Austin reorganizes embattled planning and development department," March 13, 2015; "Adler calls for plan to reduce Austin's backlog of development permits," March 26, 2015; "Austin permitting, development officials release plan for improvement," July 10, 2015

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