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Development Services struggles with vacancies as building continues “in every sector”

Facing vacancies and retention issues, Development Services is working to “do more with less.” Permitting in the current calendar year is expected to be on par with past years in commercial growth, though housing continues to lag. (Missoula Current)

Development Services continues to struggle with vacancies and retention at a time when growth and development is on the rise in Missoula and the building projects are becoming more complex.

That was the message on Wednesday as the department presented its Fiscal Year ’21 budget request to members of the City Council. The department is seeking just $26,000 from the general fund and permission to make a few baseline adjustments to its operation.

Its entire FY21 budget amounts to $6.6 million, 75% of which goes to personnel.

“We’re growing at a rate comparable to other metropolitan areas, but we don’t have the staffing capacity or funding like those other urban sectors,” said business manager Alicia Vanderheiden. “It’s a stressor in the office for sure.”

Vanderheiden said the department experienced several failed recruitments this fiscal year and currently has nine vacancies. They include the department’s top director, five planner positions, two inspectors and a transportation engineer.

The city thought it had the director’s position filled when it named and promoted the hiring of Josh Martin in January. However, Martin withdrew from the position before he even started.

“The permit and land use division has been operating at 50% capacity for more than six months, yet the type of projects received are increasingly complex,” Vanderheiden said. “These issues affect capacity and the timely delivery of services, but they also negatively impact morale and innovation.”

Vanderheiden pointed to several potential reasons behind the department’s vacancies and lack of retention. Among them, she said, the department lost some leadership and institutional knowledge with the retirement of key positions.

Until recently, she said, compensation was also subpar when compared to other sectors.

“Our recent union negotiations were a really important part of working toward retention and taking a hard look at the compensation that some of our different sectors are receiving, and the role they’re playing in the complexity of projects,” she said. “We do have a need for some of our non-union positions to be looked at.”

The timing of the vacancies may double the challenges. Large scale planning projects over the past year have included the Downtown Master Plan, the Long Range Transportation Plan, the Mullan Area Master Plan and a deep review of city policies on townhome exemption developments.

Several sizable building projects also are underway, including the new passenger terminal at Missoula International Airport, an addition to Providence St. Patrick Hospital, the new VA Outpatient Clinic and an office building to be occupied by DJ&A.

Other projects are in the pipeline including a 122 room hotel, 105 apartment units in Grant Creek Village, and a new office building for Cognizant-ATG in the Old Sawmill District.

“Development services staff navigate challenging issues and levels of growth found in larger metropolitan areas, but without the staffing and funding found in those larger urban centers,” Vanderheiden said.

Despite the challenges, she said Development Services is working to “do more with less.” Permitting in the current calendar year is expected to be on par with past years in commercial growth, though housing continues to lag.

“The market value of construction after two quarters is soaring, providing an indication of a healthy building environment and a strong local economy,” she said. “Looking out across the city, work is underway in every sector of town.”

The only sector that’s currently lacking is residential housing. Through the end of June, only 157 residential permits were filed. Another 126 followed in July for a total of just 283 units midway through the year.

“We are clearly short of planning and development projections, which recommend an average of 600 units per year to meet established needs,” she said. “As we know, additional supply can support our goals for affordability.”

Looking ahead, Vanderheiden said movement is beginning to occur on several platted subdivisions, which could result in future residential building permits.