A move by the county to depart a joint planning venture with the City of Clinton and implement a brand new two-person department has perplexed planning officials and a couple members of the Board of Commissioners, which split on the issue in a 3-2 vote this week.
In July, Board of Commissioners chairman Clark Wooten directed County manager Ed Causey to investigate the feasibility of a potential implementation of a county planning department. Last month, Causey delivered a proposal that included a two-person office, combined with the Inspections Department.
The city and county have partnered for planning services since 2004.
“We’ve invested years and years into this and it’s like watching something you’ve created implode,” said Sampson County Planning Board chairwoman Ann Naylor following Monday’s vote. “The county will truly be at a deficit.”
Causey has estimated it will take two years for new staff members to gain the knowledge it takes “to be able to efficiently operate the program.”
While it was initially estimated that the new department would cost $154,110 annually, it will actually cost about $180,000, a little bit more than the current shared situation with the City of Clinton. Additionally, there will be about $63,000 in one-time costs, mostly in building improvements.
The move will take effect July 1, 2018, with the hiring of a senior planner and another planner to take place leading up to that date.
As soon as Wooten introduced the item at the top of Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Jerol Kivett quickly made a motion for the county to acquire all planning functions currently being performed by the Clinton-Sampson Planning Department. Commissioner Sue Lee quickly seconded and Wooten asked for discussion and the vote in quick succession, raising his hand in favor of the motion alongside Lee and Kivett.
Commissioner Albert Kirby then stepped in, asking the chairman if discussion could be had. He requested to ask a few questions of Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose, saying some issues were “vexing” him.
“But we are halfway through the vote,” Wooten said.
Ultimately, Wooten ceded to Kirby, who posed a few questions to Rose.
She said, in the past year, there were 111 permits issued for the county, versus nine for city residents, and detailed various mapping tasks that are completed for county residents. Kirby asked Rose her professional opinion as to whether two people could handle the workload of five people, as proposed.
“I do have a professional opinion,” said Rose. “This is up to the county as to how they want to manage their planning function, but I would not want to be one of two people administering all the functions we do at this time. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t configure it a different way, but to manage it the way we manage it now, it would be very difficiult to do so with just two people.”
Wooten called again for the vote. Kirby offered a closing comment.
“I think this is an ill-advised decision,” he said. “We are not doing our due diligence to make this step at this point, having this kind of information. You’re talking about two new individuals who don’t have the knowledge and background to deal with these matters, and you’re expanding government. This is a tax and spend move. This is not a conservative move.”
“I have no question in my mind that in the next year or two this department is going to need more money,” he said. “What I fear is there may be a letdown in service and implementing our zoning plans. I’d hope that we think clearly about this before going down that road.”
The vote was 3-2, with Kirby and Commissioner Harry Parker dissenting.
Wooten has called the potential move “an opportunity to stand on our own and go forward.”
When the matter was tabled in September, the chairman outwardly showed his displeasure in the board, chiding them for their indecision. On Monday, no one in favor of the motion made any comments on the issue.
Naylor, who implored the board in September to consider the matter further and meet with county planning officials, called the move “ridiculous.”
“The county planning board’s consensus is we are not in favor of this move. It makes no sense for us to lose the advantage we have with five staff members,” said Naylor. “We are disappointed due to the loss of institutional knowledge of Mary and her staff. That’s invaluable. We have that staff knowledge we are accustomed to and losing that is a disservice to the county.”
Kirby and Parker previously expressed their concern not only with expanding government, but with creating a learning curve where institutional knowledge already exists. Naylor noted that the county has invested a great deal — approximately $2 million over the years — to grow its planning acumen.
“To set that aside for no real purpose and bring in two planners who have zero knowledge base of Sampson County is unwise,” Naylor said. “We’ve got years and years of knowledge. There’s no reason to toss that away.”
Kirby asked what benefit could be derived by having a completely new operation, when Rose and others had been performing the tasks for years.
“I think there are people who bring a fresh perspective,” Wooten stated in September. “To think nobody else can do that job is a little-bit shortsighted.”
At September’s meeting, Lee expressed some apprehension with moving forward with any final decision as to the planning proposal, and said meeting with county planning board members would likely prove futile.
“We know how they feel,” Lee said. “I believe that would be a waste of everybody’s time.”
Wooten and Lee ultimately did meet with Naylor and Planning Board member Nancy Blackman. Causey was also in attendance. The meeting was just 17 minutes long, during which Naylor spoke and no questions were asked or other comments given, she said.
“It was indeed a waste of time,” Naylor confirmed.
Naylor is perplexed by the board’s reaction and the dismissiveness with which she said planning officials were treated. There will be an impact not only on planning but on other departments, Naylor said, noting the “absurdity of voting without investigating.”
“As a citizen, I’m disappointed in the lack of leadership. As Planning Board chair, I’m angered and insulted that our input isn’t important or relevant,” she said. “I’ve spent years working on this board — there’s no glory in being on planning board; we don’t have fame or fortune. It’s just an important position that I don’t take lightly. Obviously, it’s only important to me. (The Board of Commissioners) don’t seem to hold any regard for our opinion at all.”
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