Mesa wonders if it’s prepared to handle development uptick - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa wonders if it’s prepared to handle development uptick

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Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2012 4:57 pm

Mesa’s elected leaders are raising concern that deep staffing cuts triggered by the recession could hamper the city’s economic recovery as home renovations and large commercial centers are increasing.

Some projects are taking the maximum amount of time to wind their way through the city’s approval process, which has generated complaints.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith asked planning officials Thursday if the city had enough employees to handle the current workload or keep pace with what appears to be a gradual increase.

Christine Zielonka, Mesa’s development and sustainability director, said the city doesn’t have any additional ability to deal with higher levels of growth.

“I would say we’re hanging on by the skin of our teeth right now,” Zielonka said.

Smith, a former homebuilder, recently launched an initiative to attract development by making Mesa what he calls the most business-friendly community in the nation.

“I want to make sure that we’re ahead of the game and we’re not trying to prove how frugal we can be and by doing that we create undue obstacles,” Smith said. “Because I think part of our way of getting out of this mess is to really provide the kind of service that is second to none.”

Zielonka said the city usually beats the expectations of developers who need permits, plans reviews and related services. The city cut back the number of plan reviewers when the recession nearly brought the development industry to a halt and Mesa was forced to slash spending. The city has kept staffing low but will pay overtime or hire consultants to handle spikes in workload or to speed up projects important to economic development.

The city completes 99 percent of reviews by its standard of 10 days for residential projects and 18 days for commercial, Zielonka said. Small residential projects like kitchen renovations or new pools often take the maximum time.

Councilman Dave Richins said the city is struggling with renovation permits in places like his 50-year-old neighborhood. He’s concerned long delays will make people take shortcuts with things like wiring, which could lead to fires.

“We don’t want them to get so disenchanted with the system that they start doing it without permits, because I think that’s where we’re headed and I’m worried about that,” he said.

The issue came about as the City Council is reviewing budget issues. Zielonka’s department is expected to take in $1.4 million more in revenue this year, which led to questions about whether that would justify additional staff to meet demand.

City Manager Chris Brady said much of the extra money is from a few big projects, such as a First Solar manufacturing plant under construction. He wants to be cautious about spending more money at this point. Mesa officials agreed to take a closer look at staffing after the City Council’s questioning. Also, the city will review posting information so it’s easier for homeowners to understand the review process and get faster approvals.

Smith said he wants to avoid having homeowners with small projects feeling they aren’t important because that could hurt the city’s reputation in the business community.

“Before you know it, we’re viewed as being totally unresponsive,” he said. “I know that isn’t the case.”

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