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Minneapolis reports September’s construction action triple that of typical month

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Minneapolis saw a big surge in construction permits last month.

Only a true government geek would spend an October morning in a budget hearing for the Minneapolis Regulatory Services Department. And for even more geek excitement, the bonus was a follow-up discussion of plans to reorganize the department.

There was good news: Construction in Minneapolis is way up, even before work starts on the Vikings stadium. When the stadium construction begins, the city might have to hire more people to preview plans and move construction forward.

“In the month of September, $185 million in permitted activity [work requiring city approval] went through the development review process,” Jay Stroebel, interim director of Regulatory Services, told the City Council’s Ways and Means/Budget Committee.

That’s about three times the amount of construction reviewed in a typical month, Stroebel said. Of that September total, $124 million was for new apartment buildings.

Stroebel said there might be a need to hire more people for planning review, inspections and traffic control during the stadium construction. The alternative to hiring, he said, would be reduced levels of service to those seeking permits, licenses or inspections.

Back to the proposed 2013 budget: Regulatory Services is a department with 293 full-time equivalents this year and no plans to change that number. The current $35 million budget would increase 8 percent, or $2.8 million in 2013.

Regulatory Services covers a wide array of offices, including such activities as Animal Care and Control, Inspections, Problem Properties, Construction Code Services, Development Review, Business Licensing and Environmental Management. There are also some Administration jobs.  

Mayor R.T. Rybak added $511,000 to the Health Inspections budget, which is part of Regulatory Services, to hire six additional inspectors. These are the folks who tell us which restaurants to avoid.

Each health inspector currently has a caseload of 377 facilities selling food. That is 152 more cases than federal guidelines recommend.  Six additional inspectors “should be adequate” to get that caseload down, Stroebel told council members. The problem is that $511,000 provided by the mayor’s budget buys only 4.5 health inspectors.

But not to worry. The city’s chief financial officer, Kevin Carpenter, and his staff are looking for $167,000 to hire another 1.5 inspectors. It is just a matter of “getting the right sets of money into the right categories,” Carpenter told the committee. 

Regulatory Services will save some money with the elimination of 6.5 jobs, including three directors. The director who was hired earlier this year is already gone, and more are going, for a total savings of $570,000.

They will save another $200,000 by reducing the number of interns by 20, which Stroebel said, “will reduce services.” The budget for interns was $300,000 this year, with $100,000 proposed for 2013.

“The department deserves a ton of credit,” said Paul Assen, city coordinator, as he began his update on its reorganization process.

Rybak called for the reorganization during his budget address. The mayor’s model would create a new Inspections Department and send Business Licensing and Development Review to Community Planning and Economic Development to provide one-stop shopping for builders and developers. He also proposed sending Environmental Management to Health and Family Support.

Assen said the conversations about the reorganization have been “frank and factual,” even by people who know they could be out of a job or put in a different job with new colleagues.

So far, the Transition Committee, made up of council members, department heads and staff, has hopes to hire a director for the new Inspections Department by February.

They have also agreed to much of what Rybak sought but not all.

“This is an update of where we are today,” said Assen, “but we meet again tomorrow.”

The Transition Committee would send Development Review and Business Licensing to Community Planning and Economic Development, as the mayor suggested, to create that one-stop shopping. But they also send along Construction Code Services.

The mayor included Fire Inspections in the new Inspections Department, but the committee is considering the option of sending that function to the Minneapolis Fire Department. It’s also considering looking at sending Traffic Control to the Minneapolis Police Department or Public Works, which is in charge of Traffic Management.

Assen plans to update council next month and expects final approval of the reorganization by the time it approves the 2013 budget in December.

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