Austin takes action after critical report about development process

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A report makes more than 460 recommendations to Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department after finding building permit backlogs and negative customer feedback.

“Our staff is working to address the backlog, to start having more overtime for our staff as well as hiring some additional temporaries to work at the permit reviews,” said Rodney Gonzalez, acting director of the Development Services Department.

A document also shows various departments are taking steps to try to address the backlog. Some of them hope to get rid of the backlog within 90 days. The Real Estate Council of Austin believes eliminating the backlog in 90 days should be the goal for all departments involved in development-related plan reviews.

Recommendations in the report by Zucker Systems also state that the department should add the equivalent of 23 staff members and use consultants to help clear backlogs, along with various other changes to standards and technology. In order to achieve the goal, the report’s authors write that the city should set aside $4.25 million. A city memo obtained by KXAN News also states that a mid-year budget amendment may go in front of city council.

The findings also state that the department needs a “new customer-focused culture.” The researchers conducted an email survey with 319 applicants who responded.

“We note that the negative responses we received in this survey are the worst we have seen in our national studies including many Texas communities,” the report’s authors write.

The city authorized and hired Zucker Systems to review the department. KXAN reported on the draft version of the “Zucker report” last month, before the release of this new, final version. At that time, builders and homeowners were seeing longer waits for building permits. A look at Planning and Development Review Department records showed last year it took an average of 27 days from application review to final approval of a residential building permit. Through February this fiscal year, the time was up to 33 days. Commercial permits were also taking longer to approve, going from 97 days to 108. The new numbers for March show that is now up to 109 days.

“There’s no question that we have room to improve when it comes to our development review process. That’s the reason we asked for this independent review, and we’re going to take these recommendations to heart as we move forward,” said City Manager Marc Ott in part of a statement released to media.

The city manager split the Planning and Development Review Department into two separate entities earlier this year, according to the city. The new Development Services Department covers areas such as permits, inspections and reviews. The Planning and Zoning Department handles responsibilities including zoning and the initiative to change Austin’s land development code.

The Development Services Department is creating an action plan in reaction to the findings in the “Zucker report.” City leaders expect that to be presented to city council in late June.

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