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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Santa Rosa will outsource to a large international company the job of processing thousands of new planning and building applications from those seeking in coming years to rebuild their homes and businesses destroyed by October’s wildfires.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a $9 million contract with Bureau Veritas North America, Inc. to establish a separate, speedy recovery process for fire victims for the next two years, with at least a third year likely needed.

The goal is to help the owners of 3,000 homes and 31 businesses in the city lost in the Tubbs and Nuns fires to rebuild as quickly as possible, without derailing what had been a concerted effort to speed the construction of badly needed new housing in the city.

“This is an extraordinary step during extraordinary times,” Councilman John Sawyer said.

Permit fees paid by homeowners are expected to cover the cost of the lucrative contract, but the city needed to front some of that money to get the company on board.

Bureau Veritas is based in France and has 61,000 employees in offices around the globe. It was one of nine companies that applied for the contract, which was executed with extraordinary speed. The request for proposals was issued Nov. 8, and the winning contract was before the council 13 days later. The company is partnering with the Westlake Village-based California Code Check to provide some of the services.

The speed of the move took some council members by surprise. Tom Schwedhelm and Julie Combs wondered why a council member wasn’t included in the selection process, “as expensive and as different a process as this is,” Combs said.

David Guhin, director of planning and economic development, said the need for swift action forced city staff to act as they did. A key to the selection was the company’s understanding that the city’s residents have been traumatized by the fires, and the permitting process should bear this in mind, Guhin said.

“This fire has basically turned 3,000 people into developers over the next few years,” Guhin said. “So, customer service was critical to our selection process.”

The city was working to establish a separate office at City Hall for fire victims to get their applications processed. A test of that model was set up this week in a new office under the banner “Resilient City Permits.”

The office was expected to open Monday, Guhin said. The private contractor is expected to have staff on site and also at other locations as the workload grows, he said. There will be significant coordination and “cross-pollination” between the two organizations, he said.

The city estimates it will receive 1,500 rebuilding applications next year, following by 800 the following year. The balance may not come in until the third year. Those first two years are expected to generate $10.4 million in fees, more than the cost of the contract. Speed was a high priority. The company was committing to turning around comments on building permit applications in five days, Guhin said. That compares to a process that could have taken six to eight weeks before the fires, according to planning staff.

Guhin pledged to hold the company, which will be paid an hourly rate for their work, accountable for the performance and to keep the council and the public in the loop.

“We’ll be looking at their turnaround times,” Guhin said. “If they aren’t able to achieve those goals, then we’ll have to address that.”

Mayor Chris Coursey said he was pleased to see the program getting underway and viewed it as a way of ensuring that rebuilding is not the only thing the city accomplishes in coming years.

“This to me represents a $9 million promise to the community that we are committed to recovery,” he said.

The agreement was approved on a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Ernesto Olivares absent.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207.

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