City hall asks for planning help

Request for more staffers to keep pace with growth

City hall is being snowed under with building plans and development applications and needs some help to cope with the backlog.

But it’s going to cost another $400,000 next year and just under half a million dollars five years from now, if Maple Ridge council gives the go ahead to hire four new city planners.

“Sometimes you physically do not have enough staff to deal with all the applications in the queue,” chief administrator Jim Rule told council Monday.

Staff try to have pre-application meetings and check lists and to reduce the number of steps required for new buildings and suburbs.

“At some point, you hit the law of diminishing returns.”

Maple Ridge has only five people in its planning department – compared to eight in Coquitlam and 19 in Surrey.

Planning staff are managing 51 applications per employee, compared to 11 files in Langley township and 23 in Coquitlam.

Maple Ridge currently has 256 active files, while Pitt Meadows has 27.

Since the downtown building incentive plan in 2011, the city has been deluged with proposals to put up more condo buildings. Initially, staff expected that to produce another 10 applications. Instead, there were 80.

Coun. Mike Morden, running for mayor, said the report detailing the need for more planners doesn’t deal with the length of time people have to wait for their applications to wend through city hall.

“I don’t really see that addressed in this report.”

He needs to know that hiring four new staff will reduce those times.

“The feedback I get from the development community is the fees they pay for permits are not their key concern.”

Instead, it’s consistent and timely processing of applications.

“To me, that needs to be our key objective,” Morden added.

According to the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks, Maple Ridge’s combined fees for rezoning, subdivision and building permits are 22 per cent below average.

By raising those fees five per cent, the city could pay for a quarter of the extra cost of the new staffers, which include a planner, planning technician, plan checker and subdivision technologist.

A 2013 NAIOP report also finds Maple Ridge to have some of the longest processing times – 240 days for approval of a project.

Only Vancouver and New Westminster, at 270 days, and Port Coquitlam at 510 days, have longer waiting periods for project approval.

Maple Ridge council wants to know if students, or part-timers could ease the workload while minimizing costs.

But hiring consultants to fill in the gaps on a short term basis isn’t always the best because it takes time to acquaint them with Maple Ridge’s system, staff said.

And when they leave, staff added, the workload just bounces back.

Council heard that students can be hired on a co-op basis, but they usually are focused on policy type work rather than processing applications.

Retirees who used to work on a contract basis are no longer available, and staff said their hourly salaries are about $70 an hour, more than city employees.

A temporary plan checker position posted twice this year, resulted in no successful hires.

Chuck Goodard, manager of environmental services, said many developers already know the process, which makes applications easier. But Maple Ridge gets many applications from citizens doing small types of developments, which require several conversations.

Council will decide on hiring more planning staff.

“We can continue to do this. It will burn people out,” Goddard said.

If council gives the OK at its Oct. 28 meeting, the hiring will take place next year.

The report proposes to pay for two staffers for the first two years, without affecting taxes, by dipping into reserves, at a cost of $198,000 for 2015 and 2016. That will pay for half of the additional $399,000 in salary costs.

The rest would come from growth of the budget and reallocating positions.

After 2016, about half of the extra salary costs ($264,000) would come from higher utility and water fees and higher development application fees.

Coun. Corisa Bell said council has been talking about improving service for three years. She also asked earlier to see if cities in Metro Vancouver can share staff as workloads vary.

But staff checked with Metro Vancouver and found that no cities were doing that.

She heard that some cities can process an application within 30 days, but staff said that was unlikely. Legally required public notice is required, waiting times and processing times would all push times beyond a month.

Mayoralty candidate Nicole Read said it was too soon to say whether Maple Ridge needed the extra staff. That would require a review of each department to see if it was meeting its goals and objectives.

“Actually, this is a good problem to have,” said Mayor Ernie Daykin, saying that it shows the city is growing.