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Study: More Tech, Workers Needed in Joplin, Mo., City Hall

A study on municipal operations recommended that the city hire more staff and introduce more technology to address needs in its building, planning and code enforcement departments.

(TNS) — An adviser on municipal operations recommends that the city increase its use of technology and add staffing in order to address needs in its building, planning departments and code enforcement departments.

"Everywhere we looked, there were problems with insufficient staff and turnover," said David Eisenlohr, a managing director of Baker Tilley, the consulting firm hired to conduct an operational assessment of those city departments and their functions.

The assessment also showed that the city has one of the better land development software systems but is underutilizing that technology to provide services and documents more quickly to developers, builders and other customers.

"You have good technology; you're just not using all of it," Eisenlohr said at a Monday night council work session where he delivered the results and recommendations of an examination of city operations conducted over the past eight months.

City Manager Nick Edwards said Monday the study was conducted as the result of comments made by residents and representatives of the business community during Edwards' listening tour three years ago and how the city can improve its environment and building processes. A set of 40 action plans were developed to address concerns expressed about conditions in the city, such as neighborhood and housing deterioration, along with problems experienced in city services.

"This study is a great foundation for improving the organization and addressing the community needs," Edwards said.

Eisenlohr said part of the study looked at best practices in other cities and found that city operations were using many of those. But the closeup examination showed a need for the eventual hiring of about 20 more employees in the departments that process building permits, conduct building inspections, review development plans and site plans for code adherence, and conduct property and nuisance code investigations and enforcement.

"We were asked to look at all the operations of the building department and all of those actions a permit would have to go through along with maintenance and upkeep of properties," Eisenlohr said. "It is considered a strong best practice to do this. You do this from time to time to look for independent input or validate what you are doing."

In addition to gathering information about best practices, the Baker Tilley team also studied the organizational structure of the city departments, compared the operations with those in six other regional cities and then conducted interviews and focus groups with builders, developers, real estate brokers, architects, engineers and economic development consultants who have done business in the city.

"We heard early on in interviews that, to a person, when asked if the city has enough people, we were told no," Eisenlohr said. "We picked the cities to collect data about staffing, and to do that in a way to get an apples-to-apples comparison, we looked at demographics and workloads" of the departments and operations of all the cities.

Joplin has fewer houses than the comparable cities, but its employees do more building inspections and plan reviews and handle more code enforcement issues. " Joplin is doing more work than the comparable cities," Eisenlohr said. "Staffing is a real challenge.

"Right now, building plans are out 12 to 15 days because of the staffing shortage. They're promising developers 10 days to turn around plans, and probably it's 12 to 15 days."

It's not possible to fund and hire 20 new people at one time, the adviser said, but the council can consider how to allocate resources for new positions over time.

The council also should work with city administrators to determine a method to prioritize neighborhoods that need the most attention because of code violations, according to the recommendations.

He said a review of city records showed that 80% of code violations came from 20% of neighborhoods, "and that is the kind of data the city needs to prioritize enforcement."

After the report was given, the city manager said, "The recommendations are significant. Some are easy, some are hard. I know council will have strong feelings."

Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez asked if Joplin shares common problems such as deteriorating neighborhoods with the other cities.

"I think you would see that many communities face these problems and have blighted neighborhoods," Eisenlohr said.

Councilman Chuck Copple said the report shows that city officials need to make improvements to the city website to deliver information and process payments and other business functions. "This shows some of the resources that could be used to better serve residents and developers that are not being used."

Council member Phil Stinnett said city officials have discussed many of the things addressed by the assessment. "You have brought to light some of the issues we have and we know we have them. Money would solve a lot of those problems. What it does for me as an individual council member... it offers the opportunity to fuel the fire and zero in" on how to approach improvements.

Eisenlohr said the draft report will be modified with comments, corrections and added information from city officials and the council, and then a final version will be provided.

The city manager said future discussions on the details of the report and its recommendations will be on the table at future meetings.

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