Council considers critique

Columbia moves toward becoming more business-friendly

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 3, 2013 

skybox columbia skyline

— Columbia city government is taking steps – albeit halting ones – to become more business-friendly.

The city is going to hire an advocate to shepherd businesses through the maze of city licenses, permits, fees and approval processes for starting, expanding or operating a commercial enterprise.

And the job of Columbia’s chief business recruiter is to be reorganized, the new city manager said last week, without providing details.

Conversion from paper documents and foot traffic in city offices to online access for complicated approval procedures is nearly a year away, city officials say. Launching a redesigned city government website that would direct people easily to the information they seek has been delayed twice. July 1 is its latest scheduled debut.

Still, a City Council committee last week got the ball rolling. It recommended that the full council adopt changes recommended late last year by a largely Chamber of Commerce-backed task force that pointed out a host of problems in the capital city and Richland County.

“Unfortunately, both the city of Columbia and Richland County have long-standing reputations as difficult jurisdictions in which to do business,” the task force report states. It cites the adage: “Business goes where it is invited and stays where it is appreciated.”

David Brandes, a consultant with a business in Columbia, was chairman of the task force. The 11-member group spent 10 months talking with a range of business owners, examining obstacles and proposing solutions. Recommendations have been submitted to Columbia and county leaders.

City leaders took the critique seriously. The group’s eight pages of recommendations are being reviewed prior to possible adoption.

Brandes said the task force found a restive business community, but no firms that left the city because of its red tape or frustrations with a plodding, unresponsive bureaucracy.

But he cited one example that irritates business people: There’s little parking for someone who makes the required trip to the Washington Street building that houses most of the city’s regulatory offices.

“You can’t find parking spaces ... to write them a $450,000 check (for fees on a large commercial project),” Brandes said. “That rubs people the wrong way. It sends the message that we don’t really want to do business with you.”

So the city’s parking services director, John Spade, is working on a proposal to issue parking passes for the adjacent city parking garage to business people who will have long meetings with city staffers.

That small change would be “a big deal” to the development community, Brandes said.

Converting the mounds of paperwork associated with large and small projects into an electronic format also is under way, city leaders said. The city’s business license division is farthest along toward a complete conversion.

Columbia has hired experts and bought software that will allow businesses to file applications, pay fees and, most importantly, monitor the progress of their requests online. Online capability now is limited to smaller projects and mostly for building permits issued to electricians, plumbers and heating and air-conditioning workers, said Krista Hampton, Columbia’s director of planning.

“We want greater access for the development community,” Hampton said. “It makes their job and our job a whole lot easier.”

Planning and design staffers have been installing and testing software to expand the very limited services now available electronically, she said.

Making that available fully to businesses is nearly a year away, Hampton said.

The city’s new central website is closer to reality. Testing the site and refining the design of the home page have pushed back its launch date, said Allison Baker, an assistant city manager who is overseeing the project that has cost $125,000 so far.

Those delays underscore the perception that Columbia just can’t operate like a business, Brandes said.

“Understanding of a deadline and meeting a deadline” is something businesses do and expect, he said.

The city’s business advocate, to be called an ombudsman, is intended to be a navigator to help businesses through the process and to press for timely decisions, Brandes said.

City manager Teresa Wilson described the ombudsman as “almost a deputy” city manager. The ombudsman will report directly to her and will monitor how well city staffers are complying with the improvements.

Efforts to break through those roadblocks will need to rise all the way to the city manager’s office, Brandes said.

Wilson said she is rewriting the economic development director’s job to be “more aggressive” in seeking new or expanded businesses. She will present her ideas to City Council as part of the 2013-2014 budget that is now being devised for the fiscal year that begins July 1.


Recommendations

A task force of business and community leaders devised a blueprint for making Columbia and Richland County more business-friendly. The group’s eight pages of recommendations are being reviewed prior to possible adoption. Here are some of the key suggestions:

•  Hire a business ombudsman to advocate for the development community and speed decision making.

•  Improve customer service training and institute a customer-first mentality among city workers.

•  Establish a better and stricter system for tracking permits, licenses and other necessary approvals so that businesses have more certainty about where they are in the permit application process.

•  Convert to online applications and approvals.

•  Give lower-level staffers more authority to make building-plan decisions.

•  Institute conditional approvals that allow work to get started.

•  Shorten the time staffers have to review or deny zoning applications and allow applicants to make revisions to satisfy reasons for denial without slowing the overall process.

•  Institute a fast-track permit approval process for larger projects.

•  Start a “secret shopper” program that uses an undercover person to submit applications and test how well procedural changes are working.

Find a way to keep special interest groups from “pushing through provisions that significantly impair economic growth.”

SOURCE: The 2012 Business Services Review Task Force

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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