Planning under budget cites report, critics not impressed with staff report update

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor

The Lemoore City Council will get an update on its May 7 decision to eliminate the city’s planning department. A staff report, based on the first two months after eliminating the planning department, cites expected savings, but some critics aren’t impressed.

According to a staff report compiled by Project Manager Judy Holwell, the planning department has received and processed 42 applications over the course of the past two months, seventeen of the applications being for plot plan approvals. The planning department also processed one administrative review, one administrative site plan review, eleven assigned addresses, one boundary line extension, eight home occupations, one sign approval and two temporary use permit.

The city’s planning department is responsible for a multitude of services which include plan checks, implementing zoning codes, administering grants, enforcing codes, continually revising the General Plan, keeping up zoning maps, processing planning applications, and planning for the city’s growth, which recently topped 25,000 in population.

The planning department was eliminated in May after Mayor Billy Siegel, in presenting his department budget review told the public at a May 7 public hearing that “There is simply not enough work in the department to justify it,” he said in referring to the planning department’s $303,000 budget.

In his staff report Siegel said that city leaders take immediate steps to save the city money, and in effect help pay for former City Manager Jeff Briltz’ severance package of $179,000, as well as a $125,000 compensation package for the Lemoore Police Department. To do so, Siegel recommended that council members eliminate the city’s long-time planning department and the Code Enforcement Officer, which he said would save the city $305,044.

In June the council approved a contract with Quad Knopf to be the city planner. The contract called for $100,000 in technical planning services and $30,000 for a zoning update. For May and June the city paid Quad Knopf a total of $9,115.38 for the technical services and $2,287.62 in June for zoning ordinance revisions. The Quad Knopf employee works from 10-15 hours per week according to the agreement between the city and the Visalia engineering firm.

Holwell, based on the current level of applications being processed and the public assistance being provided, anticipates that the planning department will end the 2013-14 fiscal year under budget.

However, she added, that if development increases in Lemoore substantially and the complexity of the projects may validate the need for additional expenditures.

See complete staff report

While the early projections may cause council to be upbeat about their decision to eliminate the planning department, there are skeptics including former planning commissioner Lisa Elgin, who is helping to lead a recall effort of Mayor Billy Siegel and Council Member John Gordon.

“The decision to eliminate planning against the will of the people is certainly a part of the effort to recall John and Billy, but by no means the center of it,” she said.

She points out that the staff report fails to include the time of Public Works Director David Wlaschin, a full-time office assistant from the city manager’s office who assists with planning services four hours per day, and the time spent by Holwell in the planning department. According to Holwell, 30 percent of her time has been allocated to the performance of planning functions, with the remainder of her time spent on economic development and Successor Agency functions.

“If half of (office assistant’s) time and 30 percent of Judy’s time are now used for planning, shouldn’t that be part of the planning budget,” asked Elgin.

She also questions the cost of the June zoning ordinance revision, $2,287.62, to make comments on what she says are three articles of one chapter. “At that rate, they will end up considerably over budget,” she said.

Council Member Willard Rodarmel, a six-year veteran of the city council, who voted against eliminating the planning department, continues to believe it was a mistake. “I don’t think it should have been disbanded,” he said.

He argues that Quad Knopf simply doesn’t have the experience that the city’s own planners had in dealing with local planning issues. “The people that were there have a lot more experience than Quad Knopf,” he said. “Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?”

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