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County trying to make life easier for its customers

Allyn Harvey

Developer John Sarpa can’t remember a time when he’s had the chance to air his gripes about the county planning department to the people who run that department.

“In the past, I think people like me felt they couldn’t criticize the people at the planning department or the process they were about to work with,” Sarpa said.

But last month everything changed.

The Aspen/Pitkin County Community Development Department invited a number of local architects, planners, builders and developers to come in and deliver some straight talk.

The discussion was one of the first steps in the department’s attempt to restructure itself. It is the third county department to undergo the restructuring process, following previous efforts by the finance and public works departments.

“We got right down to it,” Sarpa said. “We talked on both a philosophical level and on a more detail-oriented level.”

The issues ranged from attitudes of staff to the nitty gritty of getting a building permit, he said.

“They also pointed out that staff may have one interpretation on something in the code, the planning and zoning another and the county commissioners still another, which makes it hard for an applicant to know what to do,” said Nan Sundeen, the county communications director.

County planning director Cindy Houben pointed out that between the extremely tight space on the third floor of City Hall and the fairly steady turnover in staff, her department often runs near crisis level. The review process gives them a chance to make some changes.

“We’re trying to get the systems working as best we can,” Houben said. “We’re not looking to cut people, we’ve made that clear all along.”

Houben conceded that there are perceptions her department isn’t necessarily in “partnership with the community,” as its mission statement reads. “Obviously there are people who don’t think we do that, so we’re looking at it.”

The county’s Public Works Department, which manages everything from road and bridge maintenance and the weed control program to solid waste and the county vehicle fleet, is a little further along with its review and restructuring.

“I don’t know when the last time this department looked at what it does and why,” said Public Works Director Brian Pettet. “Typically, when you don’t do that, people can forget who the customer is.”

Managers and their employees alike are being asked to decide whether Open Space and Trails or the Translator Department should really be the responsibility of the Public Works Department. “Any kind of restructuring needs to be bought off on by all the managers in public works,” Pettet said.

But even though his department is only a third of the way through its review, results are apparent. “Already people have become more enlightened about other people’s jobs,” Pettet said.

The only department to complete the process is the finance department, which has eliminated the budget director’s position and created teams to manage various aspects of the county’s complicated budget. Managers from all three departments have said simplified customer service is a key goal of the restructuring process.

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