Are the newbies hurting growth in Richmond and Columbia counties?

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Are the newbies hurting growth in Richmond and Columbia counties?

A few weeks ago, the Insider pointed out how change in both of Richmond and Columbia counties’ planning and development departments might be a difficult transition.

Apparently, the growing pains are already starting to be felt throughout the CSRA.

Several months ago, Richard Harmon, the long-time director of Columbia County’s Development Services Division, suddenly resigned to the shock of many throughout the county.

Since joining Columbia County’s government in 1999, Harmon has been a leader in maintaining the construction standards and code enforcement in a county that has exploded with growth over the past few years.

During the county’s reorganization earlier this year, Harmon was clearly stripped of some of his duties. But county leaders insisted that the reason for the restructuring was simply because Harmon had too much on his plate.

The county would run more efficiently if the workload was divvied up, they claimed.

However, since Harmon’s abrupt resignation, some insiders have noticed that building permits and other licenses have been extremely slow coming out of that office.

That’s not good for a county that is always on the move.

Several builders and developers are hoping that Columbia County will realize its mistake and beg Harmon to come back to his old job. The county needs him.

Unfortunately, Augusta-Richmond County isn’t fairing much better.

While several commissioners and people throughout the county are singing the praises of Augusta’s new planning and development director, Melanie Wilson, others are concerned about where the department is headed.

A few months ago, Augusta-Richmond County’s long-time planning and development director, Georgia Patty, retired.

After more than 40 years serving this local government, Patty was probably the most knowledgeable person on staff with the county.

Whether he was talking about comprehensive planning, transportation planning, zoning, environmental regulations or code enforcement, Patty was thorough and accurate.

In fact, he is so well respected throughout the county that some of the Augusta commissioners are attempting to persuade Patty to agree to the interim county administrator’s position starting the first week in January after Fred Russell is shown the door on December 31.

But sources close to the situation say that, while Patty is extremely flattered by the offer, he may not be jumping at the opportunity to deal with the 10 Augusta commissioners as his boss. Even in a temporary situation.

After all, most people know, a temporary situation in Augusta often turns into a full-time position with no end in sight.

So, what’s the beef with the new planning and development director, Melanie Wilson? With a master’s degree in planning from the University of Virginia and as the former planning director of Wake County, N.C., Wilson seems extremely knowledgeable.

But when Wilson came before the Augusta Commission earlier this month talking about a complete reorganization of the planning department, it made some folks in the community nervous.

Particularly, when she insisted that about dozen of the department’s employees may need to reapply for their jobs.

Some simple advice: If you say those things publicly, you better be sure there is commission support for those changes. Otherwise, you are stuck with an office with low morale and some bitter employees who are questioning their long-term future with their county.

Not a good combination.

But during her presentation to the commission earlier this month, Wilson made some good points.

She stated that Augusta currently has only two certified planners, herself and Planning Manager Paul DeCamp.

While DeCamp is a master at what he does (seriously, DeCamp could run that department with his eyes closed), most people would agree that a county this size needs more than two certified planners.

But Wilson insisted that she should not be required to reduce her 2014 budget by 2.4 percent like all the other departments in the county. Instead, she wanted an additional $1 million to boost her budget.

While such a request is understandable, it’s not particularly realistic in a year where the entire county’s budget was cut to a bare minimum.

And, of course, as soon as a new director makes some controversial recommendations, the critics will come out of the woodwork.

Immediately after Wilson finished giving her proposal to the commission last month, several critics were pointing out that Wilson was let go from a high-ranking position in North Carolina in 2009.

After being Wake County, N.C.’s planning director for more than seven years, Wilson was placed on paid administrative in May of 2009 and told to look for another job, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

At the time, Wake County Manager David Cooke told the newspaper that the reason Wilson was being laid off was because he planned to eliminate the $123,359 a year position.

While Cooke insisted it was just a financial decision, The News & Observer pointed out that Wilson’s relationship with some developers and elected officials had been rocky at times.

The newspaper stated that, in her position as planning director for the unincorporated areas of the county, Wilson held sway over “policy interpretations that could influence the growth of small towns.”

In fact, one of Wake County’s commissioners, Tony Gurley, told the newspaper that “some found her difficult” in the county.

“I was aware of her inability to work with the mayors of certain municipalities,” Gurley told the newspaper in 2009. “I just felt she didn’t try to cooperate with the municipalities.”

For the most part, Wilson has received a great deal of praise in Augusta-Richmond County, but following her recent proposal for changes in her department, all eyes are on her.

We’ll see if the Augusta Commission gives her the chance (and the funding) to make the changes she has suggested in her department.

Insiders say the $1 million increase in her budget is a tough sell, particularly in 2014 when every other department is being stripped to the bone.

  • Obtuse

    All Columbia County Planning Staff are certified planners.

  • AllRighty

    What about the alleged $400,000.00 some odd in missing alcohol fees? Where’d that go?

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