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Report: ‘Dysfunctional environment’ at Santa Rosa’s development department

A highly anticipated report on improving operations of Santa Rosa’s community development department found deep cultural problems at City Hall with staff who are professional and well-meaning but feel they’re working in a “dysfunctional environment” that prevents them from providing good customer service.

The 24-page report by consulting firm Management Partners makes 33 recommendations for how to improve customer service at the department, which oversees building code enforcement and issues permits for activities ranging from replacing a water heater to building a subdivision. The recommendations include increasing access to information before the application process begins, improving the efficiency of the process itself, and soliciting feedback from customers.

View full report here.

While blunt in its assessment of the problems in the department - including long wait times, insufficient staff, and a “risk averse” culture that defaults to “no” instead of focusing on solutions - the department’s interim director said the report will act as a roadmap for immediate and longer-term changes.

“There is an incredible amount of excitement from staff and the building community about this,” David Guhin said. “Our staff is genuinely interested in making customers have a better experience.”

Specific recommendations include expanding the hours the counter is open to the public, updating the website and allowing more functions to be accomplished online, tracking turnaround time for applications, and increasing staff who can issue over-the-counter permits.

City Manager Sean McGlynn hired Management Partners earlier this year to perform a review of the department. Consultants interviewed planning and building department staff, employees from other city departments, and 20 customers and community members about their perceptions of the department.

The final report was delivered to McGlynn June 19. Three days later, he reassigned the department’s director, Chuck Regalia, a 41-year manager, to focus full time on long-range planning issues such as Roseland. Guhin, the director of the city’s utilities department, was named interim director.

The consultants noted that planning and development is a “highly visible and complex function” of city government. And they cautioned that it was “challenging to draw too many conclusions” about the department from a few interviews.

Nevertheless, customers interviewed complained that city staff “does not sufficiently appreciate that time is money” and “does not facilitate solutions to issues.”

“Overall, customers express that some staff are looking for ways to delay projects and say ‘no,’ rather than helping customers to (reach) successful outcomes,” the report found.

The comments weren’t all critical. In fact, many praised city staff for their responsiveness and professionalism, as well as their work to create a friendly environment.

“However we also often heard the comment that while the staff was trying hard, they are working in a dysfunctional environment and that despite their best efforts, overall service is poor,” the report found.

The report didn’t merely rely on opinions and anecdotes. It reviewed performance and found that service had declined in recent years. For example, planning staff used to strive to see customers in less than 10 minutes. But average wait times have increased from 4.1 minutes in 2009 to nearly 22 minutes today, the report found.

The report laid much of the blame for the problem on staffing levels, which it noted decreased more than the volume of applications.

While total department revenue dropped 57 percent between 2005 and 2009, total permits issued dropped by 37 percent. Since 2009, permit activity has recovered significantly, rising 35 percent by number of permits and 64 percent in dollar value, with no significant increase in staffing.

The report noted that between 2008 and 2014, total department staff has been nearly cut in half, to its current level of 34 people. Planning staff fell from 19 to 12, building division staff fell from 27 to 13, and the number of plan checkers plunged from seven to two, the report found.

“The staff reductions obviously have an impact on customer service,” the report found.

Not everyone is buying the explanation that the department’s troubles are rooted in staffing levels.

Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, noted that many of the issues outlined in the report were front and center for the business community when he took the helm of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce in 1987.

“This is like ‘Groundhog Day.’ That’s what it feels like for me,” Woods said. “I feel like I just woke up and it’s 1987 again.”

The industry has been railing against the inconsistency in the permit process, exorbitant fee structure, and lack of customer service for years, he said.

“I applaud them for taking the step to document what’s going right and what’s going wrong in this department,” Woods said. “But these are things the construction and the building industries have been saying for years and years.”

Woods said he is hopeful that proposed changes are actually implemented.

“If they are willing to try to follow these recommendations, we are ready to help them,” Woods said.

Guhin said that while the department is not ready to begin hiring additional staff just yet, it already has implemented some changes and is working on rolling out others as soon as possible.

“We’re going to move forward fast,” Guhin said.

One staff person has already been stationed full-time at the planning counter. The department will also be promoting pre-application meetings to improve education about the process and clarify expectations. And economic development staff are going to get more directly involved in applications that have an economic impact on the city, Guhin said.

A number of the proposals in the report actually came from city staff, who, as people who work with applicants daily, want the system to be improved as much as anyone, Guhin said.

“Their voices were heard in finding creative solutions to helping our customers,” Guhin said.

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

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