Rocky Mountain News
Consulting plan berated
Price tag of $400,000 for positions with city called 'hard to justify'
By April M. Washington
December 19, 2003
A plan to spend nearly $400,000 on consultants to help get major development projects off the drawing board and on the ground sooner in Denver is drawing criticism.
John Huggins, director of the mayor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said Thursday he has hired six case managers to help oversee a plan to fast-track the city's development review process.
Huggins defended the decision as a cost-effective way to get the program up and running without adding positions permanently to the payroll. "We're taking an extraordinary step to bring in extra people with the knowledge to help develop a review process that's quicker and more predictable," he said.
"The positions won't cost us more in benefits. At the end of the year, if we decide we don't need them, it's easier to let them go."
But employee union and government watchdog groups denounced the plan.
The move, they say, comes as the city has a hiring freeze, is grappling with steep deficits, has laid off workers and has forced employees to take time off next year without pay.
"The city needs to reconsider its decision in light of the fact city workers have made sacrifices to keep the city afloat," said Jo Romero, president of Colorado Federation of Public Employees. "It's hard to justify spending money on new people when you have the expertise in-house."
This fall, the city launched what some called a bold plan meant to address widespread complaints that Denver's building approval process is cumbersome, often creating costly delays for multimillion-dollar developments.
The city's community and planning office is working on a system that would decrease the time to review projects to 10 weeks from 10 months. The city is forming a review team that will include the six new case managers who will shepherd developments larger than 10,000 square feet. They'll be signed to a one-year contract at about $60,000 each, city officials said.
"The amount of money we're spending is minor compared to what we're doing to get many developments off the ground," Mayor John Hickenlooper said.
"They're projects that will eventually pump millions into the economy and generate tax revenue needed to turn the economy around."
The deal comes months after 16 city planners agreed to 20 percent pay cuts next year by working one day less a week to prevent layoffs.
"The planning department has gone to enormous lengths to maintain staff," said Chris Nevitt, executive director of Front Range Economic Strategy Center, a watchdog group. "It's filled with highly qualified employees who should be given this work - not for-profit contractors."
Huggins said one of the new case managers will be a city planner who faced being laid off.
The others include architects and contractors who know the nuts and bolts of winning approval for tough projects, he said.
The city auditor's office still must approve the contracts. "We haven't seen any contracts yet," said Denis Berckefeldt, spokesman for the auditor's office.
"But when we do see them, we will look seriously to make sure there's a legitimate reason to go out of the city or whether we have in-house staff that can do the work."
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