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October 18, 2012 - 10:26am

Legislators pass on idea to merge planning department with county highway

posted by Howard B. Owens in genesee county.

There simply isn't enough cost savings to justify merging the county planning gepartment with the highway department, legislators concluded in a discussion at Wednesday's Ways and Means Committee meeting.

The cost of expanding office space at the highway department's facility on Cedar Street offsets any possible cost saving by sharing clerical staff.

Tim Hens, highway superintendent, said that while the planning department is understaffed, the merger wouldn't necessarily address their biggest staffing need -- help with the GIS map system.

"It's easy to get bogged down in GIS," Hens said. "If you lighten the load on the GIS side of things, we would probably all be better served in the future."

One recommendation from Hens was to move GIS support to the IT department.

Legislators uniformly said they valued the planning department's reputation for being unbiased in its assessment of land use issues.

While moving the planning department into the highway department wouldn't necessarily jeopardize that independence, it could damage the perception for the public and for the various planning boards around the county.

Senior Planner Felipe Oltramari said he shared that concern.

"Any sort of perceived bias could sour that relationship (with the municipalities) that we built over decades. With Jim (Duval, former planning director) being there for 35 years, we really have built a level of trust between the planning department and the municipalities."

As a former town supervisor in Le Roy, Legislator Shelly Stein said the department's reputation for independence is real and necessary to maintain.

"Without that -- our planning department being independent -- we lose, we all lose as a county," Stein said.

The perception could be lost because the highway department sometimes has its own projects that need to be reviewed by planning and the department also occasionally does work for Genesee County Economic Development Center.

With the possibility of STAMP in Alabama, the growing ag park in Batavia and other economic development growth opportunities, the planning department could get super busy in future years. A staff of two planners won't cut it, but for now two is all they get.

Duval retired early this year, and while Oltramari will likely be promoted to director, County Manager Jay Gsell said, his senior planner position won't be filled as the county continues to look for ways to save money.

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