Phillip Downs is the owner of Growing Room, a developer and operator of child-development centers in Tallahassee.
So when Downs sought areas around the state to expand his company, one of the cities that made the cut was Bonita Springs, a growing city in south Lee County. When he requested a meeting to discuss his plans, City Manager Carl Schwing was there along with his top assistants at the first meeting.
And here's something that may surprise Downs: the city of Bonita Springs has 14 supervisory employees out of a total staff of about 50 people. That's because the city outsources almost all of its functions, even planning and permitting. Fire districts provide fire protection, the independent Bonita Springs Utilities provides water and the city contracts with the Lee County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement.
By contrast, when Schwing was working for the city of Cape Coral in 2005, it had 2,000 employees. As the director of community development for that city, Schwing oversaw 210 employees. Granted, Cape Coral has a population of 157,000 and Bonita Springs has 45,000 people, but the difference is still striking.
The result of the privatization of city services, says Schwing, is a more responsive staff because they're accountable by contract. If they don't perform, the city manager simply terminates the contract.
Young city, different path
Residents voted to incorporate the city of Bonita Springs in 1999. That's when leaders decided to outsource most of the city services, in part to keep the city from bloated bureaucracy.
“We were going to be a government-light city,” says Schwing.
In 2008, for example, the city contracted with privately held Colorado-based engineering firm CH2M Hill to provide a range of community development services, from planning, zoning, building permits and inspection services. Those services were previously performed under contract with Lee County.
Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson Jr. was skeptical of the arrangement at first because he wasn't sure a private firm could do a better job with issues such as zoning applications and building permits. “Privatization can go bad, too,” says Nelson, an entrepreneur and owner of Nelson Marine Construction.
But Nelson says he's been impressed by the work that CH2M Hill has done over the last four years. “They've really adopted our philosophy, which is to be customer-friendly and business-friendly,” he says.
Still, Nelson says privatization of city services isn't the financial savings some might think. For the most recent fiscal year, CH2M Hill charged the city $1.34 million for community development services.
“I think it's probably a wash,” says Nelson. “If you want to provide a quality product efficiently and properly, you've got to pay them. That's the biggest lesson I've learned in my business in 35 years.”
That's especially critical now that the economic recovery is under way. Building permits are rising, businesses are expanding, and it's important to have a staff that's well versed in local ordinances and state law. “You need the same people in place,” says Schwing.
For example, under its contract with the city, CH2M Hill employees in the community development department must not let customers wait more than 15 minutes, and they must return emails and phone calls within four hours. The contract even gives Schwing the authority to fire the person managing the community development department and pick a successor.
Another benefit is the city can consult with experts at CH2M Hill, a large national firm. “The thing you get is the expertise that they have in their entire company,” says Christine Ross, president and CEO of the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce.
“They brought people to look at the downtown development area and they make a real point of integrating their staff members into the communities,” says Ross.
Keep politics out
Turning over a government department such as community services to a private firm also helps remove some of the political interference that is typical in government services.
For example, Arleen Hunter, the director of development services, has been assigned to be the city's business advocate. “Her job is to clear the way,” says Schwing.
“Talk to Arleen,” Nelson says when a business comes to him needing assistance with a city issue. “It keeps the politics out of it. That's a real good template.”
Nelson says privatization of city services doesn't mean the city is “giving anything away,” he says. He explains it this way: “It's like going to the store and getting great service.”
In 2010, the city joined the Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce, the Bonita Springs Fire District and Bonita Springs Utilities to sign a document pledging the timely issuance of building permits, development plans and other land-use permits.
It's the kind of effort that could prevent Downs and other entrepreneurs from picking Bonita Springs for their next expansion. Downs says he had one experience in Tallahassee when a single neighbor complained about a new Growing Room school and a review committee ordered the company to add a wall and more landscaping. “That one citizen cost us $20,000,” Downs says. “We haven't run into that in Bonita Springs.”
The business-friendly checklist
In its contract with the city of Bonita Springs to provide community development services, engineering firm CH2M Hill has agreed to meet these benchmarks, among others:
• Wait times not to exceed 15 minutes;
• Phone calls and emails returned within four business hours;
• New residential-building permit applications reviewed within four business days;
• All use permits to be issued within four business days;
• Zoning questions to be answered within four business days;
• Zoning application comments completed within 21 calendar days;
• Commercial-building permit applications reviewed within five to 10 business days, depending on the size;
• Comments on major development-order applications due within 20 business days.