An hour-long discussion on the merits of establishing a county-operated planning service over the current department shared with the City of Clinton yielded no tangible results as the matter was ultimately tabled.
At July’s regular monthly meeting, Sampson Board of Commissioners chairman Clark Wooten directed County manager Ed Causey to investigate the feasibility of a potential implementation of a county planning department.
Causey delivered a proposal that would include a two-person county planning office, combined with the Inspections Department. There would be about $63,000 in one-time costs, the bulk of which would be construction and building improvements to house the new department in the area of IT and inspections, he said.
“We would anticipate starting building improvements in January, and then advertise the senior planning position and hopefully have that filled in March,” said Causey.
The senior planner would have a salary not to exceed $68,000, while a second planner would be paid a maximum salary of $45,610. All told, the department would cost an estimated $154,110 annually after one-time costs. The current cost shouldered by the county in the joint planning service is around $175,000-$180,000. However, Causey said costs would likely be comparable.
The county manager also said it would take “upwards of two years” to gain institutional knowledge for a smooth-running operation.
Wooten lauded Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose and her staff have served the county “impeccably,” calling Rose a “stellar planner.”
“I don’t want anybody to leave here with a thought that this is some type of negative toward the city, Ms. Rose or her staff,” said Wooten. “We are a big county. The city is growing; the county is growing. I believe with our initiative toward customer service, we need to work toward a one-stop shop where customers can get all their questions answered.”
Commissioners Albert Kirby and Harry Parker expressed their concern with making a change, especially when government would be “expanding” by adding two full-time employees to the county workforce and create a learning process where institutional knowledge already exists.
They asked what benefit could be derived — outside of perceived cost savings over the long-term — by having a completely new operation, when Rose and others had been performing the tasks for years.
“If we could point to some things that were problematic (with the current operation), I would be much more at ease,” Kirby said.
“What are we doing?” Parker added. “The ones we have in place — are they not capable of doing the job?”
Causey said the decision was ultimately the board’s to make. He said a comparison is not an indictment of the way the operation is currently run.
“When you’re considering this or something like consolidation, it does not necessarily say that something is bad, but is there a better way of managing to increase the efficiency of the operation for the long-term needs of the county,” Causey remarked.
Commissioner Jerol Kivett said he felt having a standalone county department could act to improve customer service. Kirby liked the idea of saving money, but questioned that a move toward a second planning agency may be “duplicating efforts,” going the other way in efficiency.
“Is this something that is going to be worth it, or should we take a different angle and tweak what we have?” Kirby asked.
Commissioner Sue Lee said she loved the idea of savings as well as improved customer service, but was concerned about “unintended consequences.”
“I think it’s worked really well,” Lee noted. “Is there anything we might not have thought about where this might not be the right thing to do?”
The county was already getting good service, Parker said.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he remarked. “I think we should look at all avenues before we do anything.”
Wooten called the potential move “an opportunity to stand on our own and go forward.”
The city and county have partnered for planning services since 2004. Prior to that, the county utilized the Mid-Carolina Council of Government and Al Mitchell. Wooten said he was a proponent of moving toward the partnership, which he said was not a popular idea at the time. It came at a larger cost, but the benefits were there.
“We made a big step at that time. Nobody can predict the future, but nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the chairman stated.
‘No reason to toss that away’
Sampson Planning Board chairwoman Ann Naylor, who addressed the board, said the years of experience and institutional knowledge with the Clinton-Sampson operation was unmatched. She also questioned how the issue even came up, noting nothing outside of Wooten’s request at the end of the July session.
“I applaud Mr. Causey for the time he took to prepare that, but I ask that you pause on this vote until you have the opportunity to discuss with the Planning Board the significance of this,” Naylor said. “I’m asking you to consider whether it’s reasonable.”
She handed out pages compiled by the Clinton-Sampson Planning Department listing the current employees. She noted that the county “has invested over $2 million on the knowledge on those pages.”
“We’ve paid them to learn, to become certified and to know what they know,” Naylor said. “We’re getting the benefit of that knowledge. To set that aside for no real purpose and bring in two planners who have zero knowledge base of Sampson County is unwise. We’ve got years and years of knowledge. There’s no reason to toss that away.”
She again urged county officials to sit down with the planning board.
“The one-stop shop is a nice little catchphrase,” Naylor said, alluding to Wooten’s comments, “but if you don’t have the knowledge base … you can’t replace it. The people of Sampson County deserve full due diligence before making this decision before a vote is taken.”
Wooten took umbrage with Naylor’s comments, specifically calling “one-stop shop” a simple catchphrase and saying the idea to look into a modification of planning services was solely Wooten’s idea. He said the county has been looking at all departments for consolidation and efficiencies, and suggested that county staff provide Naylor with meeting minutes from the previous six months.
The direction was not made “willy-nilly,” he told her.
He agreed there was a wealth of knowledge within the Clinton-Sampson department.
“But I think there are people who bring a fresh perspective,” Wooten stated. “To think nobody else can do that job is a little-bit shortsighted.”
Kirby stepped in and said he felt a discourse with planning officials would behoove the county. He made a motion to table the matter so that a discussion could be had as to whether “the path we’re taking is a prudent one.” Wooten suggested Kirby attend the meeting and bring back his own recommendation. Kirby agreed and Parker seconded, however the motion failed 3-2.
Lee again expressed some apprehension with moving forward with any final decision, and said meeting with county planning board would likely prove futile.
“We know how they feel,” she said.
“We know how their chairman feels,” Wooten replied.
“I believe that would be a waste of everybody’s time,” Lee answered back.
After a great deal of silence, Lee made the motion to table the matter until next month with no meeting with planning officials to be held. The vote was unanimous, however Wooten later chided his fellow board members. The vote to table the planning move followed a similar vote to delay a decision on a requested occupancy tax hike.
“Wallowing in indecision is apparently OK for tonight,” the chairman stated.
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