The San Rafael Community Development Department received glowing reviews in a recent performance evaluation conducted by the Marin Builders Association and the Marin Economic Forum.

The report specifically evaluates the city’s building permit process. The 18-page document presented to the City Council on Monday shows that customer satisfaction has improved significantly since the city’s last assessment in 2018.

“I will say we’ve done this type of analysis in other jurisdictions across Marin County, and by far San Rafael has proven itself as the gold standard,” said Rick Wells, CEO of the Marin Builders Association.

Improving the speed of building permits has long been a goal of the Marin business community. After complaints increased, the Marin Builders Association and the Marin Economic Forum launched a permit improvement program in 2017 that includes assessing permit applicant satisfaction through surveys and focus groups.

San Rafael was the first jurisdiction to sign on to the program, ordering its first review in 2018. Novato and Tiburon joined in 2019, followed by the county.

In San Rafael, the most recent survey was sent to 2,500 new applicants who sought permits from the city. The survey included 105 participants, representing a response rate of 4%. There were also focus groups and interviews conducted between January and November 2022 as part of the report.

About 80.9% of participants agreed that city staff responded in a timely, professional and friendly manner, and 80.2% of staff agreed to follow up within the time frames that were promised.

About 79% rated the customer service provided by employees as good or excellent. Just over 80% said they were satisfied with virtual and online services, including phone calls and emails.

Wells said the most impressive result was a Net Promoter Score of +34.7. This score is generally defined as the probability that a randomly selected customer will recommend the city’s service to someone else.

In the 2018 review, that score was +8.3.

“There has been a huge improvement,” Wells said.

The city’s building department processes about 5,000 permits a year and conducts about 15,000 inspections a year, Chief Building Official Don Gibson said. Since 2020, the department has handled about $400 million in construction work and received about $12 million in revenue, Gibson said.

Based on conservative estimates from Novato, San Rafael and the county, the percentage of unpermitted construction in Marin in 2022 is estimated at 40% to 50%, according to the report.

San Rafael collected about $3.1 million for permits in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Thus, the unauthorized business is estimated to account for $2.2 million to $3.1 million in lost revenue, according to the report.

The goal of the effort is to make it easier for professionals and property owners to obtain permits, said Casey Mazzone, director of the Permit Improvement Program.

“The other goal is to reduce unauthorized work, which will increase funding again, which will improve customer service again,” Mazzone said.

The report made several recommendations to improve its services in the short, medium and long term.

Some short-term recommendations included implementing a tracking process to make it easier for customers and employees to navigate permit applications and improving online descriptions, navigation, and graphics for intuitive use.

Mid-term recommendations included recruiting secret shoppers to apply for permits online and evaluating programs to see if upgrades were needed.

Longer-term recommendations include repeating the survey annually, automating as many processes as possible and tracking other municipalities to monitor similar organizations for best practices.

Among the recommendations, Gibson said: “I think there are things we can take from this and improve our operations, but we also face challenges.”

The main barrier is staff turnover. Gibson said officials are working to fill vacancies and change the city’s permitting system before considering other recommendations.

“I think the survey is a very important step in what we are doing to find ways to improve,” Council Member Eli Hill said after hearing the report. “We may have a belief, whether deep down or outwardly, that we are always doing better. I think the survey provides more empirical evidence about what we can improve on.”

The Marin County Community Development Agency recently announced it has appointed an “ombudsman” to expedite building permits. The district’s performance evaluation showed that only 12.9% of survey respondents said they had a positive experience and would recommend it to others.

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