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Assessment of Charlottesville planning department completed
Alex Ikefuna, director of Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services
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Alex Ikefuna, director of Charlottesville Neighborhood Development Services
Sean Tubbs | Sunday, March 04, 2018 at 6:37 p.m.

As Charlottesville’s City Council prepares to review and revise a proposed $179.3 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year, one item before councilors will be $100,000 to help the city’s planning and building department with its workload.

If adopted by the council, the funding could cover one of two new positions suggested by a recent efficiency study of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services.

“It’s undetermined right now but coming out of that report there was a recommendation to add a position that would help provide some support to our staff in NDS,” said City Manager Maurice Jones. “We haven’t determined exactly what that role would be.”

Last May, the city agreed to pay the Novak Consulting Group $42,200 for a review of NDS that built upon the work of a previous $101,250 study the company had conducted for city government as a whole. That review touched upon the workings of NDS, but the researchers were not able to conduct a “detailed dive.”

“The purpose of this [second] study was to better understand the department’s operations in the context of customer service expectations, and to identify more specific recommendations for improving the department’s management structure, services and operations,” reads the executive summary for the report.

The study goes on to state that NDS “faces several challenges,” including heavy workloads, a lack of performance metrics and “a lack of management capacity.”

“Additionally, members of the development community and neighborhood groups interviewed by the Novak Consulting Group both expressed a desire for increased communication and interaction with NDS staff,” the report continues.

The NDS director said he has a good feeling about the study.

“Some of the internal concerns we have were reaffirmed, like workload, need for additional staff, technology improvement, including acquisition of permitting and application tracking systems to streamline process,” said Alexander Ikefuna, who has led the department since August 2015.

There are eight distinct recommendations.

One would create a “support services manager” position. Others would reallocate staff duties among existing staff, rebalance geographic assignments of city planners and establish a protocol for responding to inquiries from the City Council.

A fifth recommendation is for a new planning position and to “refocus” the role of the urban designer position that was created in 2014.

Another is to “create a comment review meeting between NDS staff and applicants for eligible by-right projects.” The final two are to “provide staff with the appropriate technology to complete their work” and “develop specific performance measurements and leverage software to track them.”

The department has the equivalent of 38 full-time employees in the current fiscal year. That’s four more employees since fiscal year 2014.

Jones said increased development activity has led to increased workloads for NDS staff. It could be the new funding goes to add more people to work on the permit review process.

“We haven’t added a ton of staff there and we really need to do something to help with that process because they are being inundated right now with permit requests and special-use permit requests because a lot of people are investing in our city,” Jones said. “We’ve got to help improve that process.”

The study found that the city’s four planners work on 29 projects per year on average. That leaves little capacity for them to work on planning for the future.

“In addition to current development review activities, planners also are responsible for all long-range planning efforts for the city,” reads the Novak report.

A member of one advocacy group said he is hopeful NDS can find a way to become more efficient so that it can take on long-range planning efforts.

“NDS is absorbed with development review within its existing staff,” said Greg Powe, of the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable, which is part of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Normally, when a larger planning effort is required, this city has used outside planning experts to plan our city.”

Powe points to the Strategic Investment Area, a $190,000 study conducted by Cunningham and Quill of Washington, D.C., as well as Rhodeside & Harwell, an Alexandria-based group that has been paid nearly $2 million to date for work associated with the West Main Streetscape project as of January.

“CADRe feels that the city should have planning capabilities in house,” Powe said.

On Thursday, the city’s PLACE Design Task Force will discuss the possibility of a long-range planner position. The meeting begins at noon in the NDS conference room at City Hall.

The City Council will begin to discuss the budget at a work session at 5 p.m. Wednesday at CitySpace.

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