A complete overhaul of Richmond County’s Planning and Development Department appears to be within the city’s near future.
Planning and Development Department Director Melanie Wilson is recommending the reorganization of the planning division, the reclassification of positions and the adjustment of salaries and staffing levels within the department.
Many local builders in the Augusta area feel these changes are long overdue, but the Augusta Commission learned this week that these improvements will come at a price.
Wilson is proposing that her department receive 10 new positions, which includes three new positions in the licensing and code enforcement division, two new building inspectors and five new employees in the planning division.
The department’s current 2014 approved budget is $3,451,620, which includes the required 2.4-percent reduction the Augusta Commission implemented last year, Wilson said.
“If we fund the positions as proposed, there will be an increase of $753,148,” Wilson told the Augusta Commission’s administrative services committee this week. “And I know you are like, ‘Wow. That’s a lot.’ And it is, but with the new fees that we are currently proposing and with the phasing in of the hiring of the positions, we should be able to cover our costs.”
Wilson has proposed increasing the administrative fees for code enforcement and the licensing division by $12, which would raise the fee from $88 to $100.
She also suggested increasing the occupation tax and regulatory fee by 15 percent.
The 10 additional positions would increase the number of employees in all three divisions of her department — licensing and code enforcement, building inspection and planning — to a total of 67 employees.
These proposed changes came as a result of a complete analysis of the department that was finished last year by the Carl Vincent Institute at the University of Georgia.
Wilson insisted these changes were crucial to the future of the department.
“I am down to five or six building inspectors, and that is not very many for a community that is over 300 square miles,” she said.
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith was concerned about the long-range planning aspect of Wilson’s proposal.
Wilson said long-range planning is necessary to meet state guidelines.
“What we don’t have is a lot of thought from the standpoint of dealing with long-range planning. I’m not saying we are not doing some of it. We are doing the minimum,” she said. “Legally, we have to have a comprehensive plan for the state of Georgia.”
Many of the aspects of the comprehensive plans are extremely outdated, Wilson said.
“For example, I have got a plan of a residential development ordinance that needs to be updated. It has not been touched in over 25 years,” Wilson said. “That criteria is no longer relevant as someone who is coming in to do a larger plan within the city.”
Those outdated plans need to be addressed, Wilson said.
“We have a number of plans that are really woefully outdated,” she said. “I am looking at plans that were approved in 1977 that is supposed to determine the development patterns for some of the neighborhoods, when, in actuality, that pattern is not the same now as it was in 1977. But we are kind of tied to them from the standpoint of, that’s the only approved documents that we’ve got.”
Smith said he understood Wilson’s dilemma, but he did not want to waste money on a plan that would never be used.
“I have just really struggled with this. And I don’t know how to say this any other way than just be very frank about it,” Smith said. “When you talk about long-term planning positions, my view of that is that we pay some bureaucrats to sit in a room and have a think tank.”
There have been enough of those “think tanks” in the past, Smith said.
“Everybody has got a plan and everybody brings us a bill for that plan and it sits on a shelf,” Smith said. “Builders call me every day. I get a complaint every day about how they can’t build because they are waiting on the tree commission to approve some document that is holding their process up.”
Smith just wanted to make sure Wilson was going to be proactive in making real improvements when it came to long-term planning.
“I just do not want our money misplaced by some bureaucrat sitting in a room telling me what Augusta should look like 35 years from now when I’m dead and gone,” he said.
Wilson said she had absolutely no intentions of allowing that to happen.
“I am a working director,” Wilson said. “I do not sit in a room or in an office looking at plans and just pontificating about what Augusta is going to be like in 100 years.”
Plans are no good to anyone simply collecting dust, she said.
“Yeah, I can come up with a grand plan that is looking out 30 years, but if I don’t have a long-range planner who is taking that information and breaking it down to reasonable, usable, implementable components that a community, and you as a commission, can make decisions on, then I have a great looking plan that looks pretty, but I don’t have anything that can be implemented,” Wilson said. “I don’t write plans that way.”
Wilson’s proposal will go before the full commission next week for a final vote.