It is a “horror” story that Manteca Community Development Director Greg Showerman has heard way too often.
Someone applies for a permit to develop property, to make a residential improvement, or to open a business at a specific location.
They meet with city staff, discuss what they want to do and submit an application. Then after several days or weeks they are told something was overlooked, part of the project may not work due to zoning, or there is another fee that applies they will have to pay that they weren’t told about upfront.
In a bid to eliminate human error, avoid communicating with the public in government mumble jumble, make sure all applicable fees are known upfront and to speed up the permitting process Manteca is adding OpenCounter software.
OpenCounter not only interfaces with all of the city’s requirements, applicable zoning for specific properties and state mandates but it allows applicants to start the permit process 24/7 by accessing the city’s website.
The Manteca City Council earlier this month authorized spending $34,000 to get the software in place as well as annual subscription costs of $22,500 in the second and third years. It is addressing a goal the council set in February to “reform and improve regulatory processes relating to businesses to foster the spirit of cooperation, understanding and consensus.”
Manteca is implementing the system at the same time as the City of Tracy. Showerman expects it to be up and running by early 2008 at the latest. Among the cities already using OpenCounter are Elk Grove, Palo Alto, Pleasanton, Sacramento, San Diego, Los Gatos, Los Banos and Chula Vista among others.
Showerman noted applicants will be able to type in the property location and what they’d like to do. OpenCounter then searches the city’s data base for applicable zoning, requirements, and fees specific to that property.
“It gets everyone on the same page,” Showerman said. “It avoids a customer being told one thing by a city employee and then something else by another city employee.”
City employees would no longer have to search separately for applicable zoning, regulations, and fees to increase the chance for errors. And when it comes to fees, confusion for staff is eliminated. There are a number of different scenarios where a project in one part of town may be subject to different fees or even higher fees than in other segments such as through the Public Facilities Implementation Plan charges to help pay for improvements needed to accommodate growth.
Interim Community Development Director J.D. Hightower and the city’s economic specialist Don Smail came across OpenCounter when looking for ways to increase efficiency and reduces errors and miscommunication.
It also is expected to help improve productivity with the city’s ever increasing workload attributed to growth.
During the mid-year budget review data showed the Manteca community development staff was juggling a heavier permit load per planning technician than surrounding cities. The city currently has three planning techs that processed 3,600 permits last year. Due to the hot demand for techs created by the development surge in Northern California, Manteca and other cities have had trouble attracting applicants. The city is in the process of bringing in a contracted workers through a consulting firm to help bridge the gap until such time a fourth position is filled.
In a memo to the City Council Hightower noted, “OpenCounter provides a system to complement existing workflows. By coding all of the various planning permit requirements, the software can interface with the public without using technical terms. OpenCounter utilizes a sophisticated rules engine to calculate permit requirements, fees, and timelines as applicants fill in their project details. This helps applicants to start their projects with more confidence and helps staff to improve efficiency at the counter.
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