SOUND OFF: No logical reasons to make DCD an enterprise fund

Our Commissioners are considering making Department of Community Development an “enterprise fund” which means self supporting through fees. The potential for direct and indirect cost to taxpayers is significant.

I attended the DCD reorganization briefing, studied handout materials and studied the 2006 DCD performance analysis report. I considered DCD past performance of planning efficiency and the permitting process. I find no logical reason to make DCD an “enterprise fund.”

The 2006 performance study identified problems including failed leadership, poor organizational structure, lack of task related effort, poor internal training, lack of personal accountability and overall lack of understanding of task requirements. There is little clear evidence these major problems have been effectively addressed or corrected.

Here are some of my concerns:

DCD has the unique task of staffing regulations and then being charged to implement those regulations. Staff prepares draft regulations, presents them for approval and then makes many specific decisions required for actual implementation.

Only one Commissioner involved in adopting our current land use ordinances remains in office. Commissioner Angel voted “NO” on the Critical Areas Ordinance and was outspoken concerning aspects of the Comprehensive Plan update. The continuity of “spirit and intent” is not available among Commissioners and the responsibility for determining intent falls to DCD. DCD is not the county legislative body and cannot properly be delegated that responsibility.

DCD planners do not appear to receive clear guidance from Commissioners regarding intent for local regulation. Planners appear to rely on understandings of intent gained from prior work history.

High turnover of DCD employees, especially at director and senior levels, is a major concern. Employees who only stay long enough to complete a major project and depart take with them corporate knowledge which we need to function properly.

Past practices have resulted in ordinances that far exceed the actual requirements of state law. Regulations have become so technical and complex that neither the Commissioners nor the average citizen understand the requirements. Ordinances rely on “department discretion” for implementation. It appears the Commissioners have not provided required guidance and standards for the Department Director to properly and legally exercise “discretion.” The unintended consequences of poor regulations plague the county in litigation and bad press.

The process for citizens to make meaningful input regarding ordinances is not effective. There is no real debate of the issues. The track record of direct litigation and recent court findings, is not good. Almost every plan or ordinance adopted over the past five years has been challenged to the Growth Management Hearings Board with frequent remand action resulting. Major investment of staff and public time goes for naught because staff has gotten the answer wrong. Litigation and rework are expensive for the taxpayers. There is no obvious accountability for DCD errors.

Commissioners and DCD personnel have exhibited little understanding of individual rights, rights of property ownership, or basic economic principles, particularly “time cost of money.” Many regulations are inconsistent with the best interest of citizens or protecting individual rights.

The permitting process often appears more concerned with every applicant meeting every possible regulatory requirement rather than the efficient processing of permit applications. The complexity of regulations, coupled with down-flowing of blame in DCD, leads to process “over kill.”

The policy that guidance provided by DCD during any “permitting conference” is not binding on the county is not acceptable.

The impact of “time cost of money” on the permit applicant awaiting approval is not an apparent concern of permit processors. Developers and citizens making permit application are honest, hard working people who deserve the benefit of the doubt and every courtesy in completing the permit process.

DCD tasks include general services and fee services. Personnel will provide both types of services across time. DCD will always require a general fund budget line.

Creating an “enterprise fund” for some DCD functions provides opportunity for unintended fiscal mismanagement or a management system far more complex and costly than required.

The “Enterprise fund” proposal includes a significant DCD administrative staff. The clerical support is required. DCD personnel and fiscal responsibilities should remain with the County Administrative Department to reduce duplication of effort and relieve DCD of unnecessary responsibilities. DCD would retain the responsibility for hiring interviews. If we need PR on land use policy, let the Commissioners handle it.

Tracking permit revenues to develop proper fee levels is a simple process that should already be in place. Because “surge” requirements should also result in new revenues, budget action can provide proper funding for “surges.”

There is good reason to doubt that DCD managers can define the exact steps required to successfully complete the majority of permit applications. The regulatory options are too complex. Managers cannot accurately estimate man-hours required, outside resources, or in house resources to process a permit. Applicants are normally in the dark about process time. Any fee for service schedule developed by DCD would be little more than a guess. Fees should be based on reliable and repeatable data.

Here are my recommendations:

Retain DCD as a General Fund activity.

Develop and implement a solid organizational structure for DCD based on clear mandatory tasks. Establish a complete set of job descriptions, including minimum technical qualifications.

Develop the process and procedures that support each required task for DCD. Document and test them for effectiveness and cost efficiency.

Provide continuing department training to include the “as written” basics of underlying law and regulation, spirit and intent of county ordinance and regulation, property rights and basic economic factors.

Commissioners must get directly involved in planning to reduce occurrences in ordinances requiring “department discretion.” Make ordinances simple and clear. Eliminate as many “conditional options” as possible.

Implement a permit process resulting in quickest possible turnaround of applications, placing minimal burden on the applicant and respecting the “time cost of money” impacts. Establish an effective performance review process for permitting. Then establish an appropriate fee structure.

Establish a clear DCD budget to support completion of assigned tasks.

Track personnel performance. Hold individuals accountable. Recognize exceptional performance. Discipline for substandard performance.

DCD is staffed by individuals knowledgeable in their respective fields who are trying to do good work. DCD personnel deserve workplace stability, sound management practices, and effective leadership. These elements must be firmly in place before any new effort to fund the department is considered.

If the Commissioners want an “enterprise fund” department I recommend they try Parks and Recreation which is better suited to fee for service.



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