Walla Walla city, county department merger gets mixed review from public

Attendees at a City Council meeting criticized the plan because of job cuts it entails.

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WALLA WALLA -- A proposed plan to merge the city and county planning departments drew mixed reviews Monday.

At a public hearing held by the Walla Walla City Council, at least eight people commented on a plan to create a new independent agency to handle permitting and planning matters for the city and Walla Walla County.

While the majority decried the loss of jobs, at least one person praised efforts by the city and county to work together.

At Monday's meeting, the city council approved a proposed agreement to create the agency. County commissioners will take up the matter when they meet next week.

"I'm not sure why there is such a hurry," said Alpha O'Laughlin, an official with the union that represents city workers. "One of the things that continues to bother me, and it should bother you also if we are going to continue to represent the citizens of the city and county, is the expertise that you are so willing to cast off and lay everybody off."

"These people know their business. They do their jobs very well," O'Laughlin said.

One woman said officials shouldn't be laying people off.

"I think as civil leaders, cutting jobs should be your absolutely last resort," she said. "I think it is a very short-sighted way to look at it."

Another speaker, one of the planning department employees, asked why only that department was being cut.

"When this began, it was published as bringing a one-stop shopping to the citizens of Walla Walla, based on some complaints that have been received. Then it became a budget issue," the speaker said. "Why not other departments?"

"I kind of feel like we are being punished for a job that we do well. I don't get complaints at the counter," she said.

Other city departments, from Parks & Recreation and the library to emergency services, are in fact facing budget cuts as well.

One of the city building inspectors questioned how fewer employees would be able to serve both the city and county.

"I would like to understand how you all can think that a smaller staff serving the same geographic area and handling the same amount of permit activity are going to be providing better services to the citizens," he asked.

But one woman said she saw the merger as a positive move.

"I have been very pleased at the cooperation between the city and the county," she said. "For the first real time, I have seen people coming without emotion to discuss what is best for the city and the county."

Joe Volpert can be reached at joevolpert@wwub.com.

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