Archive for Sunday, January 9, 2005

Survey: City departments lacking consistency

January 9, 2005


For Lawrence developers, the sound coming out of City Hall isn't harmonious these days. Instead it is more like a host of departments all singing from separate sheets of music, according to a new city survey.

The survey commissioned by the city's Business Retention Task Force found that many developers believe city departments often give contradictory information when it comes to building or planning issues.

"What I have been hearing on an anecdotal level for a while now is that information given by one department will be contradicted by another department," said City Commissioner Sue Hack, who chairs the task force. "One of my biggest concerns is that we all need to be on the same page."

Now, Hack has some data to back up what she had been hearing. The task force recently surveyed users of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department and the city's Neighborhood Resources Department.

Low communication marks

Respondents generally gave each department high marks for having friendly, helpful, knowledgeable staff members but gave low marks to the overall city development process in terms of communication and coordination.

Hack said the lack of coordination, and the lack of consistency that sometimes results, was a major reason why some developers had labeled the city "business unfriendly."

"There is definitely that feeling out there with some people," Hack said. "Whether it is true or not, it gets back to the saying that perception becomes reality. If people are saying that we're business unfriendly, that is a problem."

Leaders of the Planning and Neighborhood Resources departments said they emphasize coordination.

The city's Business Retention Task Force will meet at 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets, to discuss the survey results.Here's a look at some of the results:¢ Staff members were helpful: Planning Department 61 percent agree, 31 percent disagree; Neighborhood Resources 55 percent agree, 24 percent disagree¢ Staff members were courteous: Planning Department 69 percent agree, 17 percent disagree; Neighborhood Resources 69 percent agree, 17 percent disagree.¢ Made the process more difficult than necessary: Planning Department 49 percent agree, 40 percent disagree; Neighborhood Resources 41 percent agree, 42 percent disagree.¢ Information provided by staff was consistent across all city departments: 30 percent agree, 61 percent disagree.

"Coordination is a very important issue to us," said Linda Finger, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department. "It is something we're very aware of. Maybe it is not as transparent to the public as it should be."

Coordination a high priority

Victor Torres, the city's director of Neighborhood Resources, the department that issues building permits, said coordination among various city departments was a high priority. But he said developers needed to understand that each department is usually looking at a different aspect of a project.

For example, planning looks at zoning issues, his office looks at building permit issues, and the Public Works Department looks at issues regarding construction of streets and other infrastructure.

"Sometimes there is not a lot of crossover because we're looking at different things," Torres said. "But we're always looking for ways to streamline the process. That clearly benefits the community."

Torres said he was pleased the task force was looking at ways to do that. He said the community might benefit from having a one-stop shop for developers. The city's planning office is on the first floor of City Hall, the Public Works Department is in the basement, and Neighborhood Resources is in the former Riverfront Mall building east of City Hall.

'One-stop shop' concept

Torres said the city also could consider creating a development ombudsman position to allow developers a single point of contact throughout the process.

"Something like that would be ideal," Torres said. "There are a lot of one-stop shop concepts in other communities that we can look at."

Lance Johnson is the president of Lawrence-based Peridian Group, an engineering and planning company that frequently works with city officials. Johnson, who also is a member of the task force, said he hoped the survey spurred healthy discussion because he thinks the city's reputation as a community unfriendly to development is growing.

"It is important that we deal with this," Johnson said. "Businesses are the lifeblood of the community. Without businesses, a community will die."

Hack said she agreed now is the time to tackle the issue. But she said it must be done in a way that balances the community's desire to grow in a planned, high-quality manner.

"This doesn't mean that every business that wants to come in gets a free pass," Hack said. "It doesn't mean we should violate our zoning codes or planning principles for a project. Nobody is saying that. But the process does need to be as understandable and consistent as possible."

Hack said the task force would meet later this month to discuss the survey results. She hopes to deliver a report with recommendations to city commissioners by mid-March.

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