Development Center staff could grow

As rest of City of Palo Alto workforce shrinks, manager recommends new positions to oversee permit-processing center

While layoffs, vacancies and retirements continue to shrink the workforce at Palo Alto City Hall, city officials are planning to significantly bolster the number of workers who process building permits and development applications.

City staff is proposing adding five new positions to the Development Center, the application-processing and blueprint-receiving facility across the street from City Hall. The new positions include a "development services official" -- a high-level staff member who would serve as the maestro of the center and who would be charged with coordinating the activities between the various departments involved in the city's notoriously laborious permitting process. According to a report from Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, this official will "have the authority to cross the department lines to assure accountability and a coordinated project response."

Emslie told the Weekly that the city's permit processes require input from many different departments, including Planning, Utilities, Public Works and Fire.

"We've never had one manager responsible for all these functions at the Development Center," Emslie said. "It's a huge breakthrough in being able to have that leadership and being able to set priorities, set performance standards and being able to hold staff accountable for the service delivery they do."

Other new positions would include a "permit center manager" to provide day-to-day management of the center and to supervise the project managers; and three project managers, one focusing on residents with routine permit requests, another one for more complex projects such as changes to storefronts or minor building additions, and a third one for major developments and expansions.

The proposal to increase staffing at the center is part of a broader effort City Manager James Keene launched in July 2010 to improve customer service at the Development Center and to wipe the derisive phrase "Palo Alto Process" from the local lexicon. The city's development process has long had a reputation for thoroughness, lengthiness and occasional redundancy a source of chronic grumbling from local residents and businesses.

The new positions would be funded by permit fees collected at the Development Center, Emslie said. The center took in $7.1 million in fees in fiscal year 2011 and had expenditures of $5.8 million. Revenues, according to his report, have been increasing over the past few years -- a sign of strong demand. Because the center is supposed to be revenue neutral, the city has a choice of either lowering fees or investing more resources in providing services.

Emslie told the Weekly that feedback from the community pointed toward the latter option.

"The revenue numbers tell you that we've got more business than we can handle and we need to up the resources," Emslie said. "People have been telling us that they want more service, that wait times are too long and that the permitting process takes too long. One of the things we're trying to accomplish is having enough resources to deal with the demand."

The city already has people serving in the two proposed management positions on a temporary basis, Emslie said.

The proposal to up the resources follows two years of staff layoffs and not filling vacancies. With tax revenues falling, the city has reduced the citywide workforce by about 10 percent in the two fiscal years leading up to 2011.

Emslie said the plan is to have the new Development Center employees in place by the end of the year, provided the City Council agrees to the staff proposal. The new employees are also expected to help the city unleash a wide range of new initiatives at the Development Center, including a queuing system that notifies appropriate staff to come to the front counter; a new "customer sits in one chair" culture in which staff from various departments comes to the customer (as opposed to the other way around, which is status quo); "point-of-contact" staff members for all major projects; and a new performance-measurement program to assess the impact of the new improvements.

Staff anticipates between $7 million and $8 million in Development Center revenues in fiscal year 2012, which ends June 30, according to the report.

The council will discuss the proposal at its meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 6) in the council chambers of City Hall (250 Hamilton Ave.).

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Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 2, 2011 at 10:48 am

It's about time! People are waiting hours just to pick up a permit, or get an over-the-counter permit for small remodels. I hear the plan is to have several tracks for permits, like the express lane at the supermarket. There is even going to be a self-help station!

I can't wait!

Like this comment
Posted by Do-It-Online
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 10:55 am

> People are waiting hours just to pick up a permit

And why can't these permits be issued on-line? The permit requester could print out the document, and inspectors would use iPads so that they could check the on-line database of active permits/paperwork to see if the permit is valid--with or without the paper document being provided by the builder.

Why isn't all of this being done on-line already?

Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

"Revenues, according to his report, have been increasing over the past few years -- a sign of strong demand. Because the center is supposed to be revenue neutral, the city has a choice of either lowering fees or investing more resources in providing services."

Instead this should read, "Money extorted from citizens via exorbitant fees are being used to hire more incompetent idiots, who can extort more fees from citizens."

The number of permits required to do anything and the cost of said permits is staggering. The fees to build a house in Palo Alto exceed the actual cost of construction in many places. It truly is opportunistic extortion.

The fees should be lowered and more staff should be cut. We are being taxed without any representation on the matter.

Like this comment
Posted by permit
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:34 am

it is not the people who are working there not helpful,i've actually been there a lot of times,they are very helpful.the problem is the city inspection department they have different requirement sto a project which is perfectly accepted by the development(permit) department. this results the repetitive correction by the builder in order to satisfy the is a waste of time and money.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm

The city needs to become more efficient and accomplish more with the resources it has, which are plenty. If it is unable to do this, the current staff should be replaced by more efficient workers who can. Better yet, the jobs should be privatized and the savings passed on to the ratepayers.

There is no excuse right now for sticking taxpayers with the bills for any more bureaucrats or their outlandish, defined benefit pensions.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Where will they advertise these jobs? I know quite a few people who have been out of work over the past couple of years.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2011 at 8:44 am

I have a completely opposite take on this. Rather than expanding the development center I recommend shrinking it or disbanding it entirely. Although it is cash-flow positive, and on paper the city shows revenues of, they say $8 million, what it really is is the taxpayers subsidizing a special interest in the form of the commercial real estate developers. Those guys make profits in the tens of millions or hundreds of millions versus the one or two million positive cash flow attributed to our budget. The changes suggested, indeed the formation of the center, is geared to serve the industry not the citizens. The greed of the industry is dissatisfied and wants more more more.

What percentage of staff time there is spent on commercial projects versus home projects?
What percentage of that income?

The term "Palo Alto Process" as a pejorative is propaganda put out by these same special interests, the real estate interests, to lambast the very idea of governance and is a smokescreen.

Meanwhile anything of value to residents is given lip-service and back-burner treatment compared to the commercial real estate cartel. It is most distinct in the way the Big Three are treated -- preferentially -- and how they seem to control council and direct staff. Also, I've heard that there seems to be a suspicious imbalance in the way that bonuses are awarded -- to build beyond code -- in that when certain people apply they are more likely to be applied than when others are.

The general issues of whether we have lost control of our governance and staff due to the phenomenon of the Big Three Developers is never actually covered by the local press. Hardly, they are organs for their views. Even though the Palo Alto Weekly is in business with a big developer, at 450 Cambridge, it would still be in their best interests to cover this issue, rather than risk being dismissed as like the other two rags.

Or prove me wrong here. (And I think the matter of The Varsity is perfect case in point -- and I watched their proposal being given the silver platter treatment last week at The Development Center, as citizens did indeed wait their turn. Apparently you can make an appointment to not wait, or some people can).

Like this comment
Posted by BarronParker
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2011 at 9:52 am

The Palo Alto building department (permits, inspections) is notoriously awful. I know of no person who has built an addition, or added solar collectors, or made any significant improvement to their house, who has not suffered from arbitrary decisions, bad coordination, unreasonable delays and generally abysmal service by this department. Residents, builders and contractors have suffered, and continue to suffer, from an incalculable amount of frustration and added expense.

It is particularly ironic that this is happening in the heart of Silicon Valley, where you would expect the entire process to be handled online, including all appointments and records.

It is way past time to fix this problem, and the first step is to put the system up online. Everyone not doing that, including all the current building inspectors, should be fired. We need a clean sweep of this miserable dis-organization.

Like this comment
Posted by Ernesto
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 3, 2011 at 9:31 pm

The last thing we need right now is more government hiring. I agree with the sentiments above that the size of this department should be headed the other direction. The problem with government is that it loves to expand when times are good (as they are now supposedly for the building department, although that is artificial since its as much a reflection of overcharging residents and users for its services), but is nearly impossible to shrink once it becomes clear that we the taxpayers are saddled with a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that drains our resources at a rate far disproportionate to the value it adds.

Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm

To the Mayor and city of Palo Alto: you will be extremely happy on the final product you will have with this development center. Don't hesitate to pass this. I worked in the Planning department during the time Austin developed this new system, it turned out to be very successful, and our customers were really happy. My hats off to you and your forward thinking.

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 5, 2011 at 10:04 pm

When the glut of permit applications is gone, will these now extra workers be let go? Of course not. Somehow their services will still be required somewhere. This is the way bureaucracy works. Add, never subtract.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

Let's hope the City Council will be able to see through this sham like cellophane.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:02 am

City Manager's Report Here:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Commenter
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:22 am

From page 18 of 20 of City Manager's Report:

New Staff Salary and Benefits estimate

Development Services Official $ 204,127 Salary and benefits
Permit Center Manager $ 172,159 Salary and benefits
Plans Examiner $ 139,884 Salary and benefits
Project Manager $ 115,493 Salary and benefits
Project Manager $ 115,493 Salary and benefits
Project Manager $ 115,493 Salary and benefits
New Salaries and
Benefits Total $ 862,649

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

To amend my previous post, anyone applying for a hearing in any of the thirteen categories needs to get an appointment to apply.
And the other posters indirectly answered my other question that only one of the five new positions is geared to residents, by salary that is closer to ten percent than twenty percent.
Steve Emslie coming out of planning to city managers office per se essentially works for development projects.
I hope this gets debated a little.
Meanwhile I am still rooting for Jim Keene in the Weekly's Moonlight Run and offered to pledge $100 to Rec department if he breaks 50 min in the 10K or places in his age group which is 60 plus.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 8:25 am

The irony of course is that while the developers complain of "the palo alto process" ie something getting between them and their profits arbitrarily that news of this goes online on friday and by tuesday it is a done deal.
congrats to karen holman for breaking from the pack to oppose this.

the key point is that 88 percent of the expenditure here and expansion helps the commercial real estate interests and not the citizens (12 percent, by salary, or 1 of the 5 positions).

Jim, you are selling the farm!

How can we as a community share in the profits of the real estate industry? They make tens of millions of dollars on this, and we get a small share in permit fees. The development center and this expansion is cash flow positive but it seems that it enables the greed of the developers and does next to nothing for the citizens. It is essentially a further subsidy of the industry. And meanwhile services are cut. The Arts and Culture department has had several unfilled positions.

this should be looked into more closely.

Like this comment
Posted by Charlie
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 10:05 am

"Staff anticipates between $7 million and $8 million in Development Center revenues in fiscal year 2012"

One thing I'm sure, the revenues will not be coming from the commercial/advertisement.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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