Joint venture

The consolidation of Walla Walla County's Community Development Center and the City of Walla Walla's Development Services Department is intended to save money, while providing the same services.

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If you blinked for a moment at the end of last year, you may have missed the design of one of the biggest mergers in the history of the community's planning and building services.

Plans for the consolidation of Walla Walla County's Community Development Department with the city of Walla Walla's Development Services Department moved so fast and furiously that some people who visit the new joint agency at 55 Moore St. still don't know it happened.

On the surface, there wouldn't be much clue. Except for the single office, the agency still operates with two different codes for the county and city, two different tracking systems and two different review processes.

The major difference is internal cost savings. But in the three months since the opening of the new Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency, Director Tom Glover said he's also noticed a welcome side effect: The behind-the-scenes coordination between two agencies helping streamline planning and improving permitting for customers.

"I believe from the public perspective (people) had to run around a lot," Glover said. "Now they have one location."

The consolidation process began last October through an interlocal agreement between the city and county. Thus began the merger of the agencies into one independent operation intended to save the city $252,756 over its 2010 operating expenses and the county $72,103 in the first year.

The process was nothing short of intense, involving legal guidance, human resources expertise, a technological overhaul and massive training, Glover said.

The city and county supply funding to the organization through a combination of paid permit revenue and general funds. Operating costs for the department - with staffing and benefits as the largest portion - is estimated around $1.3 million for 2011. Additionally, the city is estimated to make $533,000 in revenue, based on 2010 numbers. The county is expected to make about $400,000 through the operation this year.

The expedience was fueled by the need for spending reductions amid economic hardship - the trickle down effect locally from the nation's recession.

About eight positions between the two organizations were eliminated. The staffing reduction was awkward and painful, Glover said. Employees from both agencies had to re-apply for their positions. With only one director position available, that meant the job of the highest ranking official from one of the two departments was part of the reduction. Former Development Services Director Kim Lyonnais is no longer part of the team. Neither are some of the city's former senior planners.

The new agency received 44 applications for 12 positions. Sixteen applicants were interviewed. Of those, five were current county employees and five were employed by the city at the time.

The reduction in manpower was about the size of the whole staff that previously ran the city's Development Services Department. The county had been down to about eight people for its planning and building department last year. That had been reduced down from about 17 positions in 2007.

"There was a lot of talent that we didn't get to keep," Glover said of the eliminated positions.

Something positive came out of it, too, though. A combining of cultures, he said.

"It was good to have those conversatinos, painful as they were, so that everyone understood where we were going with this."

A merger of the two agencies had been talked about for years. The individual agencies had long heard from customers about the hardships of manuevering through two different organizations and locations in order to achieve one vision.

Example: A person planning to build a house in the county would have to apply for a permit with that agency at its location at the county courthosue, but would also have to work through the city's Moore Street office on other aspects of the plan. A well or city water? If the latter, could they hook onto the city's system? Would the design work for the hookup? The same sorts of questions would apply for sewer service, resulting in a ping-pong-like process for the applicant moving one idea through two separate organizations and tweaking the plans to meet the requirements of both.

"I don't mean to underplay, that sort of thing can take months," Glover said.

On top of that, add changing state regulations, which at any moment could cause the agencies to amend their policies. And as confusing as the process can be for the client, the different agencies weren't always versed in the requirements and restrictions of the other. Consequently, the process sometimes became more political than practical, Glover acknowledged.

"One thing this has done, it will cause the city and county to work together on planning issues with similar interests," he said. "It takes the politics out and puts the focus more on the project."

Developments proposed in the Urban Growth Area - the area that delineates where more dense development can take place and where it can't - are an example. "Now with a project in the UGA we have city engineering staff, county engineering staff and planning staff from both agencies all in the same room," Glover said.

Glover acknowledged he had heard some skepticism about consolidating the offices last year. Some developers worried about getting caught up in "Permit Confusion Land." But since the organization opened its doors in January, he said he's not heard any complaints from the public.

"What I have heard is through the city manager and county commissioners," he said. "They say they've heard good things."

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