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.).