Spokane Mayor Jim West says he plans to pursue a major reorganization of city government aimed at improving Spokanes economy.
The planstelegraphed in his campaign and embraced by his community-based transition teamcall for creating a new, cabinet-level division charged with economic development, and shifting into that division a host of city departments. Key among those shifts is the planned merger of the citys planning and building services departments, which currently operate separately on two different floors at City Hall.
Anytime you can combine two government entities into one room, where they would be required to talk to each other, its a good thing, says Jim DeWalt, president and CEO of the Associated Builders & Contractors here.
West says the idea of melding into one division a host of functions that affect development and commerce makes sense for a municipality that faces financial challenges and is concerned about poverty.
While the citys expenses continue to rise, its options for boosting revenues are very limited, he says. Really, West says, the only way to raise revenue is to increase the economy.
When people have jobs, he says, they can spend money, generating sales-tax revenue for the city. When new development occurs, property-tax revenues increase, as do utility fees. Every employee here has the responsibility to improve the economy of Spokane, West says.
Under Wests plan, the new economic-development division would be on equal status with public works and utilities, finance, police, fire, administrative services, parks, and libraries, he says. He plans to begin a regional or national search next month for someone to lead that department, and the administrator selected could end up being an executive from the private sector, rather than a veteran government official.
Under that division would be three departments: planning and building services, business-development services, and community development services.
The planning and building services department would include both the building department, which currently is under public works, and the planning department, which currently is in a division that also includes community and economic development. Building and planning also would be brought onto the same floor, with those people working side by side, West says.
Planning includes such tasks as zoning and urban design, while building services largely involve construction permitting. The new department also would handle annexation requests, tax-increment financing, historic preservation, and code enforcement.
The new business-development services department would include some functions currently handled in the mayors office by the citys economic-development adviser, Tom Reese. Those functions include, among others, business retention and expansion and community enterprise zones. It also would be responsible for city-owned real estate.
Community development services would include most of the functions currently handled by the citys division of planning, community, and economic development, with the exception of planning. The functions that would stay include federal Housing and Urban Development programs, arts, human services, and youth programs.
West says that eventually some of those functionsespecially those oriented more towards human servicesmight be moved to other divisions. He wants to keep them together for now to ease the shock in the system.
In addition to hiring a division director for economic development, West plans to select department heads for the three departments in that division. He says its likely that Mike Adolfae, the citys director of community development, would head the new community development services department.
Its unclear yet who the other two department heads will be, he says, though Reese will have the opportunity to apply for the job of director of business-development services, and managers Dave Mandyke and Joe Wizner could be candidates to head the new planning and building services department. Mandyke is temporarily heading the citys planning department, following Wests recent reassignment of planning Director John Mercer, but also has duties in public works, while Wizner currently is head of the building department.
West says he already has briefed members of the City Council on his plan, and expects to present it to them formally next Monday. The council will need to make some changes in municipal code to implement the plan. West says he hopes to have the changes in place by the end of April.
West says hes trying to make the entire reorganization revenue neutral for the city, and believes thats possible because money earmarked for various positions will be shifted around.
Similar reorganizations, he says, have been or are being made by cities such as Tacoma, Portland, and Sacramento. A consultants study for the city of Minneapolis recommended a reorganization very much like the one West and his transition team came up with, West says.
West says the moves should create efficiencies within the departments and better communications between them. He also expects that the head of the new division of economic development will push hard to ensure that the citys other divisional heads, who meet every morning with West, understand how their divisions affect the citys economic health.
The city cant create jobs, but it can create a favorable job climate, West says.
He says hes been serious about the rule he initiated upon taking office that city workers arent allowed to tell constituents no. That rule, he says applies to any request that isnt illegal, unethical, or would be a potential danger to residents of the city. If a worker believes the answer should be no, the request must move up the ladder to the next level, and ultimately could end up with West, who claims the sole right to say no.
The easiest answer is always no, West says, adding that government workers have always been risk adverse for fear of getting in trouble with their superiors.
Were going to have to change that attitude if we want to meet our goals, he says. What Im telling them is that if they can get to yes, Ill back them up.
Jon Eliassen, president and CEO of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council, says Wests plan will strengthen the citys role in economic development.
It brings together two parts of the organization (building and planning) that are really critical in terms of streamlining the process in Spokane and helping it become a business-friendly community, Eliassen says.
He says that Reeses appointment by former Mayor John Powers already has given the business community a whole new way to contact and work through the city.
Eliassen adds, That doesnt mean that people are going around the necessary regulations, and theyre certainly not shortcutting the permit process in any way at all. Its just a lot more open. Its a lot more transparent, and it certainly is a much better sell when we recruit businesses to Spokane to say that we have an economic-development department that is totally focused on making it easy as possible for businesses to get the permitting, relocate, and have access to all the necessary support services the city can provide.
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