Budget crunch spurs city, county toward action

An expected revenue shortfall has the city and county working on a combination of development departments.

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WALLA WALLA -- Spurred on by a looming budget crunch, the city of Walla Walla and Walla Walla County are studying how to merge their development departments into one entity.

If all goes well, the new city-county department would be in operation by the start of next year. It would be an independent operation under a board of directors who would hire a department head to manage staff and direct business. The city and county would retain their hearing examiners and planning commissions.

In an interview Wednesday, city Mayor Barbara Clark, County Commissioner Gregg Loney and City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the merger proposal is both old and new. While it has been discussed in the past, a $1.3 million shortfall in city revenues projected for 2011 has added impetus to finding new ways to economize, they said.

Loney and Shawa said the need for a one-stop agency for permits, inspections and other services is one of the top complaints they've heard from residents, particularly those in the urban growth area surrounding Walla Walla.

"We've heard many of the same concerns the city has," Loney said. "The frustration level of trying to get a project done is often very high.

"Government has always been accused of not being user-friendly. To have a one-stop shop would be, as we view it, very beneficial to people," he said.

County commissioners and City Council members have discussed the proposal in the past few weeks at the commissioners' Tuesday workshops, Loney said. The two boards will hold a joint agency meeting at 4 p.m. Monday to begin reviewing the financial and legal aspects of the proposal.

"This has been talked about for years and years," Clark said. "Everybody kind of knew that this was needed."

Many questions still need to be answered, such as where the office will be located, how many people it will employ and, most importantly, how it will be funded.

"The revenue side of it is easy to figure," Shawa said with a laugh. "It's the expenditures that will be the sticking point."

According to the city and county budgets, the Community Development department is expected to take in $760,045 in revenue and have $740,045 in expenditures this year while the city Development Services office is projected to have $991,370 in revenue and $1,485,040 in expenditures. Initial projections are that combining the two departments could result in an estimated $500,000 reduction in expenditures, Shawa said.

Members of the city and county development offices were told about the changes Thursday afternoon, Shawa and Loney said. The county's Community Development department has nine full-time people, down from 13 employees two years ago, while the city's Development Services staff at present consists of 9.5 full-time equivalent positions.

Although it is too early to say how the merger will affect the staffs of the two departments, Shawa said that speaking for the city, the projected budget shortfall is going to force cutbacks.

"We're facing layoffs if we do this or not," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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