County puts hold on joint agency

Concerns about cost and workload are behind Tuesday's vote against a Jan. 10 start date.

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WALLA WALLA -- A new city-county planning agency may not start up next month as hoped.

Walla Walla County commissioners Tuesday voted to not move forward with the Jan. 10 start date for the agency, which will combine the county and city of Walla Walla planning departments.

Commissioners Perry Dozier and Greg Tompkins voted to not move forward while Commissioner Gregg Loney voted to go ahead with the Jan. 10 date.

The issue now shifts back to the joint agency's board of directors, which will meet Monday.

Commissioners said they continued to support the idea of combining agencies, but also agreed they wanted resolution to many issues before the joint agency opens. They also voiced concerns over decreases in expected savings due to having to hire more help to meet the projected workload.

The increased workload came up at last week's joint agency meeting when Tom Glover, interim agency director, reported he found the city has 532 unresolved code compliance cases while the county has 56. In addition, the city has 366 active permits while the county has 202, meaning there would be 568 active projects for three inspectors. Glover also outlined other differences between the city and county workloads for permit technicians, building officials and other areas.

In order to deal with the workload, Glover recommended adding an additional building inspector and code compliance officer, with the building inspector being a permanent position and the code officer a temporary employee.

The additional staff and other changes would reduce the city's expected savings from the merger to $291,098 and the county's expected savings to $83,742. Earlier estimates had projected savings to the city at about $364,000 and about $218,000 to the county.

Commissioners had been asked last week to make a decision on backing the January start date. At that time, Tompkins, who represents the county on the joint agency's board, said he couldn't support going ahead because he has too many unanswered questions.

City Attorney Tim Donaldson had told commissioners he needed to know before today whether the new Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency was still on track to open in January. That deadline was because the City Council, which holds its last regular meeting of the year tonight, would need to pass an interim zoning ordinance to pass the city's authority to the new agency.

At the close of last week's meeting, Loney promised Donaldson commissioners would discuss the issue at their workshop Tuesday and give the city an answer in time for the Council's meeting.

Dozier said Tuesday that he had been "tremendously excited" about the idea when it was proposed in August. But the reports of increased workloads and decreased savings have changed things.

It was not so much the lost savings, Dozier said, as the "ultimate goal of having a well-run department" that concerned him. Issues need to be ironed out and the new board needs to take control. "I still wish to move forward with this, but I don't feel confident it can be done by Jan. 10," he said.

Loney said "it's no secret that I'm in favor of the (joint) agency," but he said he thought the entity would start small. The larger-than-expected workload has caused him to re-think, he said.

"The savings are not what we hoped, but I think the long-term potential is there, as well as the synergies," Loney said. Neither the county nor the city is backing out, but the issue is "what's good for the (Walla Walla) Valley."

Along with reiterating his earlier concerns, Tompkins said the joint agency board needs to train itself on its roles and responsibilities.

Speaking at Tuesday's meeting, City Council member Dominick Elia said he agreed with several of the things commissioners said, but "I don't believe not moving ahead is an option."

Elia said both the joint agency board chairman, Bill Clemens, and Glover have said they believed they could have the agency ready to go by January urged commissioners to set a deadline. "I have some concern that if we don't set some sort of date, this will just continue to drag on," he said.

Commissioners also discussed, but made no decision, on how planning and permitting matters would be handled if the joint agency is not ready to go in January. Loney said the county would be able to function by hiring personnel to provide interim services, but he didn't know about the city. Elia said he couldn't answer that question either, but said city staff has been working on contingency plans.

Following Tuesday's vote, Tompkins said he would go back to the joint agency's board to discuss what the next steps should be with Clemens and fellow board member Jim Barrow, who represents the Council.

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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