Sacramento County is spending $1.5 million to renovate its Community Development Department, with much of the money going to high-end furniture in its downtown Seventh Street offices.
County officials say the work is necessary to improve service to developers, who have complained about a slow and inflexible permitting process.
But with the county in its fifth straight year of budget cuts cuts that have included laying off hundreds of planners and engineers the project has prompted some questions.
"I'm always concerned about the appearance of spending money like this," said Supervisor Phil Serna. "But I understand the administration's reasons for doing it."
After taking office in 2011, County Executive Brad Hudson spent more than $21,000 on furniture and a shoeshine machine and $35,000 on sound-masking equipment for his office.
He also pushed for the reorganization of the Community Development Department, a revamp that brought together planning and other services into one department, under his authority. He has made development a priority.
County officials say they expect to spend about $360,000 on furniture for the renovation project. The first phase includes more than $200,000 in furnishings by Herman Miller, a company considered a pioneer in modern furniture design. The California Museum has an exhibit on one of the company's former designers, Ray Eames.
"It is high-end furniture, but I don't understand why it's a problem we use it throughout the county," said Jeff Gasaway, the county's facilities manager.
The county is building a "one-stop shop" for developer services that will feature Herman Miller work stations and 23 of its Aeron stools and chairs.
A New York Times writer called the Aeron the "standard-issue luxury item for dot-com entrepreneurs at the height of the economic bubble of the 1990s."
Buying at discounted bulk rates, the county bought the stools for $880 each and the chairs for $630 each, records show.
Lori Moss, director of the Community Development Department, said the county bought the chairs and stools to ensure employees are comfortable and because the county must make accommodations for the physical needs of some employees. The Aeron chairs and stools provide ergonomic features not found in most office furniture, she said.
Herman Miller products last a long time, and the new purchases can be used with other Herman Miller furniture the county already owns, Moss and Gasaway said.
The one-stop shop will bring together several different county services in one room, saving people from having to drive to different locations to get various permits, Moss said.
"In the past, the county has had a stigma when it comes to efficiency," she said.
A 2008 audit, conducted at the county's request, found that the departments serving the development community were full of "silos, black holes and an out-of-date organizational culture."
Hudson used the audit as an argument for merging services under one Community Development Department. Since the consolidation, however, the department has continued to fall short of its goals.
In the last fiscal year, for instance, the department completed applications within 60 days only 55 percent of the time. Moss said the renovation, which includes a change in layout for planning offices, will lead to improvement in that area.