City Hall should merge its planning and permitting departments and put a single administrator over both as a way to improve efficiency and make the process of development in Baton Rouge more smooth and user-friendly, according to consultants doing a $300,000 efficiency study and implementation plan for the Broome administration.
For years, backlogs in permitting and plan review have stymied both the development community and officials in City Hall, who have tried to fix the problem. But even the retention of a third-party plan review firm in 2017 has only partially sped up the process of getting building plans reviewed and approved.
Jerry Newfarmer, president of Management Partners Inc., the Cincinnati-based consulting firm, says his team spent weeks reviewing the way development is done in Baton Rouge and found there’s no holistic approach or accountability built into the system.
“In really well-run organizations, you put planning and permitting together in the same department and you have a development department and you put someone over the whole thing who is responsible for the entire process,” Newfarmer says. “That way, everyone knows who is accountable for getting things done quickly or in a timely fashion.”
Creating greater efficiency in city government isn’t just about reorganizing and renaming departments. It’s about changing the way things are done within them, says Newfarmer, who points to the 2015 breakup of the former Department of Public Works into six independent departments as an example of a failed experiment.
“They made a tremendous mistake there, in my opinion,” he says. “They busted it up and changed all the names and titles but they didn’t change the way they do anything.”
Since Management Partners began working in Baton Rouge last September, it has focused on the departments formerly known as public works more intensively than others. The team’s consultants identified several key problems, including: employee retention, low employee pay, inadequate training budget, unsustainable workloads and a cramped, disheveled work environment.
As a result, permit tracking is not interconnected with other agencies, plan review exceeds established cycle times and expedited plan review is an incomplete process, leading to poor customer service.
The firm is already working to help city officials, their managers and employees address the problems. Among the items in its action plan: return to in-house processing of all residential building permits and farm out processing for all commercial building permits. Then, move towards an entirely paperless system that could be tracked online.
The plan also outlines specific ways to meet and reduce processing times and creating a more customer-centric experience.
“We’ve basically created a plan so managers can plan the work of the organization,” Newfarmer says. “We set out to teach them how you do that.”
As reported in Daily Report AM, the study has identified some $7 million in savings that could be realized in the first year if various recommendations are implemented.