City combines planning, building functions to speed up permitting

March 28, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 5:30 p.m. March 28, 2012

The reorganization of City Hall entered a more intense phase Tuesday, as officials announced a plan to bundle municipal departments into a Development Services Department — a super-agency meant to streamline planning and building functions.

Bob Harrison

The change is accompanied by a more muscular effort to attract and retain businesses. Leaders said the Development Services Department is meant to smooth the process apply for a permit to construct a project or open a business in Issaquah.

The centerpiece is a plan to offer applicants the option to pay additional fees to expedite the evaluation a project receives. The setup is akin to Disney’s Fastpass. Only, rather than theme park guests standing in line for shorter stretches, permit applicants choose a speedier permitting process.

City Administrator Bob Harrison said frequent questions from permit applicants influenced the project.

“We hear all the time, ‘We want certainty, so that when we come in, we know how long and at what level of permit review and administrative process is going to be involved,’” he said in a presentation to City Council members. “Time is money, and they want to have an understanding of what’s involved there.”

Building Director John Minato, the future Development Services Department leader, said the process is not for all applicants.

“We are looking for a smaller percentage to go through sort of a premium permit process,” he said at the Committee-of-the-Whole Council meeting. “Obviously, if everybody rushes to that line and tries to go through that process, then things do get a little bit out of hand there.”

Officials said the setup is unlike others offered in nearby cities.

“As a department who is serious about providing great customer service, instead of being asked the usual question, ‘Well, how long does it take to get a permit?’” Minato said. “We should be able to allow our staff to ask these questions instead: When would you like to apply for a permit? When would you want to have your permit issued by? Or, even, what date would you like to have your building occupied by?”

The proposal requires approval and funding from the council to proceed. The council is expected to approve the changes next month through a series of adjustments to the 2012 municipal budget.

The proposal to create the Development Services Department earned early praise from council members.

“I like the new way of doing business,” Councilman Fred Butler said.

Study prompts major reorganization

The agency combines the Building and Planning departments, plus the Major Development Review Team. Elements from the Public Works Engineering Department also shifted to the Development Services Department.

The department is split into teams dedicated to day-to-day permitting tasks in Permit Services, long-term planning in Policy Planning Services and Land Development & Construction Services.

“When we as a city know months in advance specifically when a project is coming in for application, we can prepare the right level of service needed,” Minato said. “We can reserve a place in line for review because we know ahead of time when it’s coming in.”

The department comes into existence as leaders retool City Hall to reflect recommendations in a 2011 study. The report from Seattle consultant Moss Adams called for major shifts to accommodate a slowdown in construction and fiercer competition to lure and retain businesses.

“We had very rapid economic growth. Cash was easy and available for developers to do development,” Harrison said. “The brakes were put to that. There’s a much greater risk for development going forward.”

The study focused on efficiency and effectiveness. Moss Adams discovered different cultures, expectations and management styles across departments. The reportoutlined differences in coordination, scheduling and tracking.

“What we heard from the Moss Adams report is that in talking with our customers, they want to know early in the design stage what changes might be necessary for regulatory requirements,” Minato said.

Moss Adams also recommended changes in staffing. Through February, leaders reduced the Planning and Public Works Engineering workforces through layoffs and a severance program. Officials also left vacant positions unfilled.

In the meantime, the city is recruiting a deputy city administrator to oversee the reshaped planning and building functions.

In addition to the proposed Development Services Department, officials renamed the Resource Conservation Office as the Office of Sustainability. The agency — focused on steps to implement environmental programs in City Hall and the community — shifted from the Public Works Engineering Department to the executive office.

The city plans to test a shared services group for administrative and clerical tasks at City Hall Northwest, the planning and building hub.

“The words ‘shared services pool’ caught my eye and, quite honestly, immediately I had a vision of a 1950s typing pool,” Office Manager Darcey Strand said.

So, she researched the concept. State government and major corporations share administrative services under such a model.

“I was wrong. It’s totally 21st century,” Strand said.

Moss Adams recommended for officials to shift paperwork and other clerical duties from high-level managers.

“Issaquah really is at the cutting edge of this concept of shared services,” Harrison said. “We couldn’t find any municipalities in America” using a similar program.

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