The building boom in Marana has powered the town's economy and made it one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, but the pace of growth is straining the town department charged with regulating development and officials are looking for a solution.
As part of the fix, Marana's Development Services Department, which handles building-related tasks that range from platting whole subdivisions and making sure buildings are safe to sweeping the town's streets and filling potholes, will be restructured beginning with a plan approved by the town council Dec. 2.
And in an effort to track complaints from citizens and builders and increase the department's efficiency, the council also voted unanimously to hire as consultants the former manager of the city of Scottsdale at $225 per hour and a Marana retiree who served as chairman of the campaign that re elected Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. in March.
Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said between 3,000 to 4,000 new residents have moved to the town in each of the last two years and the town is preparing for an unprecedented level of development in the rural areas of north Marana.
The town has issued 1,144 building permits in the first 10 months of 2003, compared to 911 permits issued in all of last year, according to town records.
The level of demand on the town's Development Services Department is reaching critical mass, Reuwsaat said, but he remains confident Marana will contend with the growth and he does not believe the town is growing too fast.
"That's what we're doing now is reorganizing our staff, resources and workloads to meet those demands," Reuwsaat said. "We're doing whatever it takes to make sure we're in a position to deal with it."
The restructuring of the town's development arm will include creating a new position of Deputy Administrator of Development Services for Subdivision Coordination to oversee the town's planning department, building services department and subdivision engineering.
The town has contracted with Tetra Tech Inc., a national engineering firm, to provide subdivision engineering services. The services will soon be provided by Marana employees as part of the restructuring, said Jim DeGrood, Marana's Development Services Administrator.
A consultant who analyzed the Development Services Department in 2001 recommended the subdivision engineering service be moved in-house after employees complained Tetra Tech was "overcharging and (doing) make-work." The town employees also said the change would reduce complaints from builders and minimize delays for building plan approval, according to a copy of the consultant's report.
Calls to Tetra Tech's Tucson office seeking comment were not returned.
The reshuffling will also split the town's planning department into two divisions that will place their respective focus on current planning projects and long-term planning.
"Right now, the immediacy of need for today is dominating our planning department," DeGrood said. "We're not focusing on the future as much as we should. We need to spend a lot of time on advance planning because that's our future."
In a period of less than two years, Marana's population grew by more than 31 percent between April 2000 and July 2002, according to the U.S Census. The current population of more than 18,000 is expected to balloon even quicker as projects such as the 1,875-home Continental Reserve development come on line.
The town is expected to begin seeing dirt fly in north Marana as the 1,900-home Gladden Farms development begins to rise. The subdivision is the first of several master planned communities to hit a 1,000-square acre planning area in Marana's agricultural lands west of Interstate 10 and north of Tangerine Road.
"We've not really substantially added any staff to development services except one building inspector and a permit clerk over the last two years," DeGrood said. "We've got record low interest rates and we've gone from less than 900 building permits to about 1,400 per year, and we've got a lot of work ahead. They're really ready to break loose in Northern Marana."
Marana has begun hearing grumbling and complaints from citizens and developers alike about service levels, Reuwsaat said, and the two new consultants are expected to focus on streamlining the department and being more responsive to complaints.
Dick Bowers, who served as Scottsdale's City Manager for nine years until his retirement in 1999, has been given a sixth month contract to review Marana's Development Service Department and make recommendations intended to improve service.
As part of his review, Bowers expects to conduct interviews with employees, citizens and developers and establish focus groups, according to a copy of his proposal obtained from the town.
Bowers, along with an assistant who will cost the town $140 per hour, expects the consulting fee to cost Marana between $16,000 to $20,700, according to his proposal.
Dan Sullivan, a Continental Ranch retiree who most recently served as Marana's representative on Pima County's 2004 bond proposal committee, will be paid $25 per hour as the town's "Private-Public Sector Liaison for citizen's complaints," according to his contract.
Reuwsaat said he made the recommendation to have Sullivan fill the position for the next six months and Sutton, whose campaign committee Sullivan chaired earlier this year, had no role in the selection process.
"Dan is the best man for the job. He brings a great deal of knowledge and community interest to the table," Reuwsaat said.
Sullivan worked primarily in labor relations for the federal government before his retirement, and has been active on unpaid development-oriented committees in Marana for about three years, he said in a phone interview.
His new job will entail investigating and responding to complaints pertaining to development services and is expected to involve about 20 hours of work each week, according to his contract.
In 2001 the town hired Robert Morris III as a consultant to evaluate development services in Marana. In addition to recommending that Tetra Tech be replaced with in-house services, Morris also recommended the division of the town's planning department into future and current planning components.
Morris, a former Human Resources director for the town of Surprise, was paid $40,000 for his consulting services, said Roy Cuaron, Marana's Finance Director.
Reuwsaat said the new consultants would build on Morris's work and were not redundant.
"The Morris study looked more at internal operations rather than external customer-focused issues, or at least it didn't focus on the external issues satisfactorily," he said.
A review of the 30 complaints documented in the Development Services Department in 2003 showed most were filed by Marana residents unhappy with street flooding, street sweepers and routine maintenance functions performed by the town. Almost all of the complaints received a response from town officials the same day and almost all had some form of resolution that seemed to satisfy the complainant.
DeGrood said complaints are also filtering in from home builders through second hand accounts and "whispering campaigns" that are not documented by the town.
"We get all this whispering and sniping along the way and you don't find that recorded on a complaint form because that's not the way it's delivered. It's not forwarded to us, it's whispered behind backs that Marana is a dream killer for the home builders and that kind of stuff. So our view is let's improve our process, let's improve our image, let's deal with it in a real direct and objective fashion," DeGrood said.
Alex Jacome, governmental liaison for the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, said complaints about Marana have never been formally analyzed by the association and the restructuring took SAHBA by surprise.
"It popped up at the last council meeting and we had no heads-up on it at all whatsoever. Since it affects our members, it would be interesting to have us included in the conversation," Jacome said. "We're of the opinion that there's common ground out there and we would like to sit down and work things out. Sometimes municipalities get too restrictive and make it really tough for builders."
Paula Meade, director of forward planning for Pulte Homes, said she's been "relatively satisfied" with Marana's services such as plan reviews and building inspections, but knows growth is exerting tremendous pressure on the town's staff.
"They're swamped and understandably so. I think they're dancing as fast as they can. Are they getting things done as fast as we would like? No one can get things done as fast as any home builder would like. But the thing that sets Marana apart is that they're responsive. You can pick up the phone and talk to someone in town government if you have a problem and that's a huge plus," Meade said.
Reuwsaat said the growth that is straining Marana's Development Services Department is also impacting other areas of town government such as the police and parks department and similar analysis and possible restructuring are planned for them in the future.
"We're growing fast, but we're sensitive about our customer service and our customer satisfaction. We'll do what it takes to make sure we uphold the standards of service that are expected from us," Reuwsaat said.