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Modesto's goal: Become customer friendly

If Modesto City Councilwoman Janice Keating has learned one thing during her seven years in office, it's that people are angry. Especially people who do business with the city, Keating says.

She believes there's a "chasm" between City Hall and the people it serves.

Keating wants to bridge that gap with a customer service program. The council's Economic Development Committee recently approved a pilot version of her plan.

Starting soon, people who interact with the city's planning division — by applying for a building permit, for example — will receive a personalized "we appreciate your business" letter. They will be encouraged to call Community and Economic Development Director Brent Sinclair directly if they have any problems.

After their business with the city is finished, City Manager Greg Nyhoff will send them a survey about their experience. He'll ask what the city did right and what could use improvement.

Some say the city needs to do more than send out friendly letters and surveys. Others say they've noticed a warmer attitude toward business, especially since Nyhoff took over in June 2008.

Keating's customer service program was inspired in part by her own brief stint as a developer in 2003, when she helped get a homeless shelter built. Working with the city was a "nightmare" that ended with her "throwing a hissy fit," Keating said.

The letters and follow-up surveys aren't just about putting a smile on people's faces, Keating said. She sees the program as a way to boost business and bring jobs to Modesto.

"If someone has a choice to go somewhere where they feel welcomed, and we're doing everything we can to get feedback, then they'll be back," Keating said. "And they won't move their warehouse business to Ceres, where there's a more business-friendly attitude."

'Is your city for real'

One local engineering consultant who's done business with the city for almost 40 years said he's glad officials are talking about improving customer service. The consultant didn't want to be identified because he didn't want his criticisms to influence how city staff treat him.

Doing business with the city used to be simple, the consultant said. Twenty years ago, he would sit down with one planner, flip through his plans and get them approved within a few days. These days, he said, he has to deliver multiple sets of plans to the city. Employees in several departments take turns chiming in.

By the time that's done, there's a long list of reasons he can't do what he wants to do. "Sometimes they seem to take pleasure in showing what power they have and what they can do to stop you," the consultant said.

One out-of-town architect working on a restaurant expansion was stunned by the number of hoops he had to jump through, the consultant said. The architect asked him, "Is your city for real? Are you guys nuts? What is this?"

The consultant said the city can't afford to keep up that kind of off-putting behavior.

"The city should be bending over backwards when someone wants to come in and put (an addition on a restaurant)," the consultant said. "That would put carpenters to work, that would put more people to work at that restaurant. They should be doing everything possible, but that's not what's happening."

He noted that the slowness isn't all the city's fault. Much of it is related to ever-increasing layers of environmental regulation and liability fears.

But he wishes the city ran more like a private business, with one person designated to lead each project. Now, every time he has a question "a committee holds a meeting to reach consensus" about how to proceed.

Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, said he's seen signs of a warming trend in the city's attitude toward the business community.

Bassitt recently took a business owner who had concerns about development fees to City Hall.

"In the past, that would have been summarily dismissed," Bassitt said. This time, a staff member admitted the city had overcharged the business, apologized and took steps to issue a refund check.

Undoing the perception

Bassitt credits Nyhoff with making an effort to reach out to businesses. Nyhoff said that's been intentional. Since taking over as city manager, he said, he has made it a priority to undo the perception in the business community that City Hall is an "island."

That was an expectation the council set for him in job interviews. Nyhoff had one round with a panel of Modesto business leaders that included Stanislaus Foods executive Tom Cortopassi, Memorial Medical Center chief executive David Benn, Doctors Medical Center chief executive Denny Litos, DoubleTree hotel general manager Mario Lopez and E.&J. Gallo Winery director of global environmental affairs Chris Savage.

Many city departments gather customer feedback, but Nyhoff wants to replicate the welcome letters and follow-up surveys in other city departments. The outreach is part of a larger strategy to cultivate friendlier relations with residents and businesses, Nyhoff said.

"In the business world, people have conversations, and if you become known as a city that's hard to do business with, that information travels and you get knocked off the list as a place to open a new business," Nyhoff said.

Also on the agenda: holding focus groups with architects, engineers and others to discuss solutions to specific problems.

Also, the planning division is expanding tools to track building permit applications online, Sinclair said.

This isn't the first time the city has tackled such improvements.

In 2007, a city-hired consultant listed more than two dozen changes city planning could make. The city followed most of those suggestions — except one to hire more staff. That wasn't a wise idea with the economy headed into a downturn, Sinclair said.

Since then, the Community and Economic Development Department has lost about 40 percent of its staff, Sinclair said. It has had to learn to make do with fewer inspectors, planners and engineers.

But with development activity at a near standstill, now is the time to streamline processes and build positive relationships, Sinclair said.

"Once development activity picks up again, it's too late," Sinclair said.

The engineering consultant who's been unhappy with the city agreed that now is the time to act.

"Look at what development has gone on in Turlock; look at what development has gone on in Riverbank, and compare that to Modesto," the consultant said. "It appears that they don't want development to happen in this town.

"Someone should ask the question, why is this happening in Turlock and Riverbank and not here? Someone should ask what's the attitude in those communities that's not here?"

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at www.twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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