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Missoula approves increase in development fees to fund staffing, accelerate project review

Development fees in Missoula will increase by 15% to fund the staffing increases needed to complete more timely reviews. That includes two additional planners, an engineer, one parks planner and one senior planner. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

An effort to speed up the review process around development by increasing the fees needed to boost staffing capacity at a city department passed the Missoula City Council on Monday night, though the vote wasn’t unanimous.

Now months the in the making, development fees will increase by 15% to fund the staffing increases needed to complete more timely reviews. That includes two additional planners, an engineer, one parks planner and one senior planner.

Combined, the five new positions will cost around $358,000.

“This has been a months-long process based on a lot of feedback from developers in town,” said council member Gwen Jones. “Frankly, the office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation needed to have a quicker process because it was taking too long, and time is money. We want to have faster service so people can get projects turned around more quickly.”

The fee increases are part of a larger comprehensive plan underway at the city to handle growth. Among other things, the development office is working on both short- and mid-term goals aimed at staffing, the general review process, and reforming outdated or unnecessary codes.

Reforming the later could lower costs and incentivize the construction of affordable housing. Ideas could include promoting more compact development and reduce parking requirements around certain projects.

Addressing a staffing shortage with fees is the first step in the process.

“Having a timely customer service experience is important,” said council member Heidi West. “This will allow us to increase our capacity so everyone who comes to this department for a variety of reasons can get what they need and get it faster.”

By increasing capacity, the city intends to reduce the review of a multi-family housing project from around 10 weeks to two weeks. The review of other construction classes will also be compressed.

Those in the industry suggest the results could save tens of thousands of dollars on construction projects, get businesses open sooner and homes built faster.

“We’ve spoken with developers where six to eight weeks could result in savings simply from carrying costs alone of $10,000 to $20,000,” Eran Pehan, the city’s development director, said last week. “Those savings either get passed on or the costs get assessed to the eventual homeowner.”

But not everyone believes that an additional investment in staffing at the development office will solve the problem.

Council member Jesse Ramos said government is filled with examples of money wasted on problems that were never solved.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that has shown that throwing more money at something makes anything go faster or makes anything better,” he said. “The developers are going to be passing that (fee increase) on to the customer at the end of the day.”

Rather than increasing fees, Ramos said burdensome regulations are the problem.

“We need to work on how much material needs to be reviewed in the first place to build a home,” he said. “There’s so many things we can do to reduce this burden instead of having more people there to enforce the burdensome regulations in the first place. This is addressing a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself.”

City: Shortened timeline for development review could trim Missoula’s housing costs