Sarasota Director of Neighborhood Development and Services Tim Litchett said there is a growing misconception that a huge drop-off in construction has occurred within city limits and that his department is providing subpar customer service.
On Tuesday, Litchett provided a list of building permits and other licenses granted the past two years that show the city is handling roughly the same number of permits, if not more, than in earlier years (Click here for sidebar).
“I do think there’s a perception out there that there has been this huge drop-off of construction and work over the last year,” Litchett said. “But, really, our numbers show we have been steady for some period of time.”
Although the city is more than 95% built out, Litchett said it generates revenues from remodeling projects and at least a few large projects each year. This year, the Sarasota Memorial Hospital wing addition, Litchett said, is generating revenue for the building department. The construction value of permits issued in fiscal year 2010-11 increased more than $20,000 compared to the previous fiscal year’s figure.
Litchett points out his department and various divisions are performing roughly the same amount of work with fewer employees.
Three years ago, his department had more than 100 employees. Today, the department has 56.
“At the end of each year, I show my department what we’ve done and how we’ve done it,” Litchett said. “Even with 40% less staff than we had three years ago, we have a tremendous load we are handling well.”
Litchett also questions rumblings about his department having a customer service problem. He points to 120 customer comment cards collected from January 2010 to July 2010 showing that 113 respondents checked off “excellent service” and seven marked “good” service.
During that same time frame, the building department served 29,033 customers and issued 8,067 building permits.
Litchett says that every customer is handed a comment card.
“If they choose not to fill it out, I’m guessing they aren’t having any problems they wish to let us know about,” Litchett said.
And from July 2010 to July 2011, the department received 139 “excellent” ratings out of 142 cards received.
Litchett also said that three open-house, problem-solving sessions with City Manager Bob Bartolotta this year have led to zero complaints for the building division, despite the fact those sessions were requested by the Sarasota City Commission after Vice Mayor Terry Turner said he wanted to gauge whether the department had any customer-service issues.
“We are the Walmart of government when it comes to handling a large amount of people each and every day,” Litchett said. “We are taking every customer seriously, and I believe the way we are tracking customer service levels reflects that.”
Litchett said the numbers speak for themselves.
“I have heard Sarasota’s closed for business for some time now and I’m fighting that,” Litchett said. “We are doing our job quite well.”
Turner recently requested the customer comment cards to review them.
“I am quite impressed with the positive responses Tim’s department is getting,” Turner said. “In large measure, I now believe the concerns and comments about poor service are reflecting service some (people) had three or four years ago. Today, Tim’s department is providing exemplary service with fewer staff, and it’s something this city should be proud of.”
Joel Freedman, owner of Sarasota-based Freedman Consulting Group, concurred with Turner.
Freedman’s company recently received approval for a project at 1400 DeSoto Road involving 280 apartments on 16 acres.
Three or four years ago, Freedman said, it would have taken the city eight months to approve such a large project. But it took the city four months to approve the project this past fiscal year. If a similar project were proposed in Sarasota County, Freedman said it would take at least nine months to win approval.
Freedman credits Bartolotta’s reorganization of several departments under Litchett’s supervision for the quick turnaround.
“I find that of all the cities and counties I work in, I always prefer to permit that work in the city of Sarasota,” Freedman said.
Pointing to frustration of city residents and business owners regarding delays in getting a P.F. Chang’s restaurant application to the Planning Board, Freedman said that also is not the city’s fault.