When Gilbert Trejo of Cloud Nine Construction goes to the development department at Fresno City Hall, he plans to spend about three or four hours getting his permits.
That’s not bad in his eyes compared to other cities in the area. He’s also a smaller player on the development scene comparatively. Others have greater concerns that the Development and Resource Management department (DARM) doesn’t move like it should.
DARM is the corner of City Hall where developers, contractors, subcontractors and residents go to get their plans approved for all types of construction, renovation and rehabilitation.
Over the past three decades, various administrations have made at least three attempts to reform the department.
From accusations of drawn-out timelines to unaccommodating customer service, two parallel plans—one from Councilman Garry Bredefeld offering money-back guarantees to applicants out of department budgets for plans that don’t get approved within stated timelines and the other, a series of reforms from a committee of 16 industry representatives and a website out of Mayor Lee Brand’s office, both hope to address a long standing issue with the culture at city hall.
“It’s somewhat known that its difficult to work in the City of Fresno,” said Ed Dunkel of Precision Civil Engineering, who is on Brand’s Business-Friendly Fresno (BFF 2.0!) committee. “There’s a lot of outside developers that come here and know that. There is that reputation.”
It was this reputation that spurred Mayor Ashley Swearengin to begin the first phase of Business-Friendly Fresno, and in 1999, the city council and Mayor Jim Patterson oversaw committees for the Fresno Economic Recovery Program, which also sought ways to solve the problem.
“This is not the first attempt to try to fix this,” Dunkel said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve seen the attempts — too many to count.”
Brand now hopes this attempt will be different.
“Nothing against Ashley or Alan [Autry], or anybody else, but they never had that intimate knowledge and working in the construction industry like I have,” Brand said.
To that end, the Brand administration has already steered $4 million into a website and a customer service program, according to Mark Standriff, city spokesperson.
Additionally, the 16 people Brand chose with engineering, architectural, development and even human resources backgrounds have come together to make recommendations for structural changes, and some of them already have ideas of where to begin.
A difficult culture to work in
Solutions can be hard to find when no one wants to speak up about the problem. Many contractors and developers refuse to talk out of fear of reprisal. Dozens of attempts to reach out to those in the industry have been declined because people worry how on-the-record stories would be taken.
“I think they fear if they speak out, people will mess with their projects,” Bredefeld said. “The fact that they fear that is very telling.”
Bredefeld is not the only one who knows there’s a problem.
“There is no doubt that certain people will delay projects and cause grief if personalities get into it,” Dunkel said. “That’s something I will bring up.”
Brand said the first thing people will see are “major” administrative changes, “maybe before it even starts.”
“What’s happening here is they’re going to get the message things are changing and if you don’t want to be a part of that,” Dunkel said, “you don’t want to be part of the solution, then you’re not going to be a part of it any more.”
But unions are a big part of employment at city hall and make staffing changes like the ones BFF 2.0! envision difficult.
“The way it works typically is seniority,” Brand said. “If I have to get rid of five planners out of 20, usually the five that go are the ones that just started. The ones maybe you want to go, you have no control over that.”
Brand says he has begun working with the unions to be able to make changes and identify “problem spots.”
Bredefeld, however, thinks waiting another year is hurting Fresno.
“When you have an economy that is thriving but will only thrive for the next 18 months to 24 months or so, we don’t have time to study and form a study group for a year,” Bredefeld said. “We should be implementing these kinds of changes so we get businesses moving through.”
The changes Bredefeld wants to make are in his Money Back Guarantee/Business Streamlining Act he introduced to the council on Thursday.
A similar proposal was passed by the city council 7-0 back in 1999, but it was never implemented. Bredefeld has revived it.
What it would do is hold the different departments at city hall accountable to their established timelines.
Once an application has been approved, if the department doesn’t meet that timeline, a full credit would be issued to the applicant that would go toward either a future project permit or fee, a business tax or an approved non-profit. That credit would then count against that department’s budget for the next fiscal year, something Bredefeld says will not affect public safety.
“We’re going to hold the people accountable who are holding up getting business accomplished in the city of Fresno,” Bredefeld said.
Meeting complicated timelines
Mike Pickett at Pickett Solar has been waiting for over a year to get a piece of land on the outskirts of Fresno approved for use.
“I’m trying to get a piece of ground annexed and I’m already a year into it,” said Pickett, whom the mayor brought on to BFF 2.0!. ”It’s still going through the process.”
Pickett points to Visalia, who in his eyes, gets things done significantly faster and may be a good model to look at.
“Especially when you’re dealing with businesses, the quicker you can get things done, the better chance you have of landing a project,” Pickett said.
Even though the city had an incredible amount of growth last year, those in the city fear losing out on jobs due to drawn-out timelines.
To meet those timelines, the department needs to be able to anticipate how many people they will need.
“For me, the biggest challenge is ensuring that we have the right staff in place to meet whatever the market need is right then,” said Jennifer Clark, director of DARM.
For Clark, this means having enough staff to review, inspect and approve the tens of thousands of inspections DARM oversees, while not being overstaffed when the economy dips.
Right now, the department staffing is 30 percent lower than it was in 2008, but applications are 30 percent higher, according Standriff.
“Over the past year, we’ve had an increase, anywhere from 5 to 10 percent in the number of inspections we’ve done,” Clark said. “We’re going from essentially 70,000 inspections a year to 80,000 inspections a year.”
With its current staff, the department met 70 percent of its timelines, according to the DARM website. According to Clark, that included 100 percent of its industrial and solar approvals, but there are others who disagree on that.
Dunkel is skeptical of the claim that DARM makes 70 percent of their deadlines. “I don’t know what they’re looking at, but no — not even close. A lot of it is coordination,” Dunkel said.
Coordination is key, because timelines are not just in DARM’s hands. Plans go through dozens of hands, from Public Works and Public Utilities — both city offices — as well as numerous county, state and even federal agencies including the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, California Department of Transportation, even the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to name a few, before they can get approval.
“If there’s one area that breaks down, the whole thing falls apart. We need an advocate. When someone comes in there’s an advocate that pushes it all the way through,” Dunkel said.
One of the plans coming out of the mayor’s office is a concierge to “grab people by the hand” and see them from start to finish, according to Brand.
This liaison would communicate directly with clients and let them know exactly what they need throughout all stages and departments.
Additionally, to help applicants along, the administration will be rolling out a new website that will track where plans are in the process.
Engineers, architects or whoever is working on a project will have access to notes from workers about problems that they can see in real time.
For staff to be able to communicate right back to the applicant about code specifics, or shortages to let people know things might take a little longer is what Clark wants out of her department.
“For me, the most important thing for us to do with our applicants and our clients is to communicate,” Clark said. “Communication is absolutely key to having a good relationship with the customer.”