Walla Walla city-county planning agency back on track

With concerns from the county handled, the agency awaits only City Council votes tonight.

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WALLA WALLA -- A new joint city-county planning agency is poised for launch after concerns that threatened to derail it were overcome Monday.

After meeting, the three-member board for the Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency approved the agency's proposed budget and draft internal policies. County commissioners put their stamp of approval on the budget today and the Walla Walla City Council will meet tonight to vote on the same issues.

Commissioners also approved Tom Glover as the agency's director. Glover, who had been the interim director, was approved for the post by the Council last week. He had been director of the county's Community Development Department prior to taking on the new job.

The Council also will vote on an interim zoning ordinance to pass the city's authority to the new agency. The Council held off action on the matter last week after county commissioners voted 2-1 against moving ahead with opening the agency on Jan. 10.

Although commissioners said they continued to support the overall idea of combining departments, they expressed reservations last week about unknowns in the agency's proposed budget as well as other issues.

But those problems were overcome Monday as board members Jim Barrow, Bill Clemens and Greg Tompkins worked through the agency's proposed budget with Glover, resolving issues with projected costs and potential problems raised by Tompkins, who represents county commissioners on the board.

In its first year of operation, the combined agency is expected to save the city $252,756 over current operating expenses and the county $72,103, according to the projected budget. Savings could increase in the second year as the inherited workload is reduced, particularly in regards to code compliance cases.

Although the agency's new staff will start work on Jan. 3, Glover said the first week will be occupied with setting up and getting the computer systems running in the agency's offices at the Development Services Center on Moore Street. Although new permit processing won't be able to start until Jan. 10, the agency will be able to provide building inspections to avoid interruption of service in that area.

When asked by Tompkins if he felt starting in January was "the right thing to do," Glover delivered a cautious, but optimistic, answer.

"This has not been done before," Glover said. "We're going off into the great unknown here."

Although some city and county functions have been combined, such as some court services, merging city and county planning is unique because the entities have different codes, different systems and different expectations from residents.

"There is going to be an awful lot of work to do, but I'll try my best to make it work," Glover said. "There's nothing to point to, we're going off into the dark. Is it the right thing to do? That's a political question I'll have to leave to you."

Barrow told Glover that the commissioners' support of him speaks well for their confidence that he will make the agency work. The city council is also enthusiastic about the joint project. "You are the right person to take this forward," he said. "I think this is the opportunity to do something smart."

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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