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The Santa Rosa City Council approved a $5.1 million budget bump Tuesday aimed at funding the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, streamlining the city’s review process for all manner of planning and building permits, and jumpstarting other initiatives that couldn’t wait until the new budget year in July.

The mid-year spending increase reflected city staff’s desire to move quickly to fund several council priorities, made possible by a flush city budget. The city is enjoying a $21 million budget surplus above its 17 percent reserve level thanks to a rebounding economy and $8 million cash infusion from the sale of property to a hotel group.

“I’m seeing this not only as an investment in our city, but also in our organization that services our citizenry,” Mayor John Sawyer said.

The additional funding was approved on a 5-0 vote and with little controversy. The authorized expenditures ranged from big ticket items like $2.4 million for the square reunification project to smaller needs like $648,000 to fix failing roads near Roseland to comparatively minor adjustments such as $25,000 to appeal a recent legal judgment against the city in an long-running dispute over bicyclists’ use of a path near Oakmont.

The council spent little time discussing the largest expenditure, the reunification project, largely because last fall it already committed to spend up to $10 million to see the two sides of the downtown square rejoined, and preliminary work on the project is already underway.

The most substantive discussion surrounded a $1.3 million infusion into the Planning and Economic Development Department to help it improve its technology, streamline a development review process often criticized as unpredictable, and manage a backlog of permit applications.

City Manager Sean McGlynn said reforming the department, whose paper-based processes he has previously called “Neolithic,” would have been easier during a lull in development activity, but the city doesn’t have that luxury anymore.

“We’re trying to do process improvements at the same time we’re trying to deal with the workload that we’ve got in front of us,” McGlynn said.

More than 10 major subdivision projects have come forward for plan review recently, the city needs to boost its budget for consultants to keep those housing projects moving forward, said David Guhin, the interim director of the department.

The funds requested include:

*$500,000 to on consultants to continue plan checks on projects in the building and engineering departments.

*$351,000 to fund an information technology position for three years to expand the city’s use of its planning software, Accela.

*$110,000 to turn a contract building inspector into a full-time city employee.

*$100,000 for management consulting services to help review city policies, like its hillside development ordinance.

*$99,000 for software to make the permit system open to the public and more efficient for applicants.

*$30,000 (for the remainder of this year) for a new counter technician in the department.

McGlynn stressed that some of the software and process upgrades will also improve the transparency of other departments, like code enforcement, and will prepare the planning department as it moves toward creating a one-stop service hub in a new building.

McGlynn said the city bears some of the responsibility for the slow development review process due to differing interpretations of city codes because the codes themselves are written in ways that are open to interpretation.

He said it is common for staff people to give initial guidance to applicants only to later have senior staffers offer different opinions based on how those rules have been interpreted in the past.

“We’ve built in these inconsistencies in our own system,” McGlynn said.

While noting the city needs to do better, Councilwoman Julie Combs said getting consistent interpretations of laws is “a big bear.”

“We have Supreme Court justices that don’t agree on the reading of a particular document,” she said. She said she didn’t want to see rules governing development “gutted” for the sake of expediency.

Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange and a sharp critic of the city’s planning processes, praised city leaders for their efforts at making the department more customer friendly and clearing out the backlog of permits created by a building rebound.

“What (the department) is faced with … is almost an El Niño of construction,” Woods said. “After eight years of drought in the building industry, we’re playing catch up.”

Other increases included $540,000 more for the Fire Department to reflect higher reimbursements from the state for overtime for strike teams during last year’s fire season; $190,000 to upgrade bathrooms at City Hall; and $184,000 for security upgrades at the corporation yard. Another increase not related to the general fund involved $110,000 to fund a half-time administrative position for three years to manage a program to subsidize the water bills of low-income residents.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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