City strives to streamline dealings with businesses

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | 5:36 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Getting a construction permit for your business got a little bit simpler this past week. 

Permit applicants are now able to drop off construction plans in one place instead of a number of city offices scattered throughout Columbia. 

The change is the first in a series of short-term steps City Manager Bill Watkins hopes will demystify the "black box of government decision-making" that the business community faces. Longer term, Watkins plans to hire a business ombudsman to nurture relationships between the city and employers, beginning in spring 2009. 

As of Oct. 1, the Protective Inspection Division of the Public Works Department is accepting and then distributing construction plans to necessary city departments from its office in city hall. Before the change, construction permit applicants were required to submit multiple sets of documents to as many as five city departments.

Applicants currently receive separate feedback from each department and then respond to the specific concerns of each. Soon, Watkins wants the division to keep tabs on all departmental feedback throughout the review process.

Permit applicants will deal solely with the division. 

"It's a one-stop shop, so to speak," Watkins said. "Any city department that touches a building project needs to be involved." 

For Columbia developer Jim Rader, the permit process has been so historically difficult that he now prefers to let his architects handle all dealings with the city. That was the case with recent renovations to Bengal's Bar & Grill, a building Rader owns.  

"I gave up on battling the city," Rader said. "It's too frustrating. There was an adversarial relationship as soon as you walk through the door. (The process) wasn't user-friendly." 

Watkins said he has heard from the business community that the permit process is not always easy to navigate. 

"My suspicion is that the majority of permitting goes pretty smoothly," Watkins said. "There are enough problems that I felt we need to step in to make things a little more simple, more direct."

Applicants can bring their questions about construction projects to a newly created committee of department representatives. The committee will meet weekly and will bring cohesion and authority to problems as they arise, Watkins said.  

Watkins  hopes to implement a formal customer feedback system and a "fast-track" permit process that in the near future could approve small commercial projects quickly, possibly in the same day.

A new city ombudsman

Watkins said he thinks the addition of an ombudsman will meet the needs of local businesses to help retain jobs in Columbia.

It takes a dictionary to make sense of the title, but the role the ombudsman will play is more straightforward.

"My initial concern would be relationships with existing businesses and employers," Watkins said. "His or her responsibility will be to meet with various employers on a regular basis and just make sure that there isn't something we (the city of Columbia) can help with, for instance with an expansion."

The fiscal 2009 budget contains funding for the position but only for the second half of the year. That’s why the ombudsman will begin work in March.

As an example, Watkins suggested that if a company has a chance to expand but needs infrastructure – such as more water capacity or help with a road — the ombudsman would be the point person.

"We can easily coordinate all the efforts of all city departments to get that done," Watkins said. "That's my goal." 

The ombudsman also would be in a position to help struggling businesses. He or she could, for example, help a business become more competitive to avoid downsizing by a parent company; help it attract a new product line; or help it weave through government regulations, infrastructure processes or state finance programs.

An ideal candidate would need to have a familiarity with government processes and a be a strong communicator, "someone who's not afraid to go out and just go talk to people," Watkins said. "We don't want this person sitting in an office waiting for the phone to ring."

The search for the new ombudsman has not yet begun, Watkins said.

Updates to the permit process and the creation of the ombudsman are baby steps toward what might end up as a separate division or department for development services, but that won’t happen for at least several years, Watkins said.

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Charles Dudley Jr October 8, 2008 | 6:38 p.m.

I'm curious to why the ombudsman position could not have been done by a "Advisory Commission" of members like some other "Advisory Commissions" are done for the City thus saving the City money? This type of Advisory Commission could have been made up of some of the "top business owners" in Columbia. It is just an idea being that this year's FY2009 Budget was so tight and squeaky that where is that position's money to come from in the future as something will have to be cut to fund it won't it unless the citizens of Columbia vote to have their taxes raised to fund that position and any other "pork" that might be slipped in.
Hey do not get mad at me now as I'm just the new guy on the block asking honest questions all citizens of Columbia should be asking.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro October 9, 2008 | 12:58 a.m.

Why the fancy word? It doesn't seem to fit the job description.
Maybe he means city government/private business coordinator?

om·buds·man (mbdzmn, -bdz-, -bdz-)
1. A man who investigates complaints and mediates fair settlements, especially between aggrieved parties such as consumers or students and an institution or organization.
2. A government official, especially in Scandinavian countries, who investigates citizens' complaints against the government or its functionaries.
Does someone else have a better dictionary to help Bill Watkins out on this title?

(Report Comment)

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