By. Neil Williamson, President
“They think that the cure to big government is to have bigger government… the only effective cure is to reduce the scope of government – get government out of the business.” – Economist Milton Freidman
Freidman’s prescription for big government came to mind as Albemarle County is now hearing from their various departments regarding their increased staffing needs in a series of reports and presentations in preparation for the FY18 Budget cycle.
Tonight (11/2) Community Development is charged with supporting their request for two additional planners and a new administrative position. It is unfortunate that this departmental analysis does not calculate the unprecedented increased demands of Planning Commissioners and Supervisors that are far beyond the mandated legislative review. We will say it again the best economic development strategy is to make it easier to develop in the development areas.
Clearly some of the perceived need for additional Community Development staffing is driven by the increased demand for staff at project community meetings, and citizen advisory councils. Rarely, if ever, are such increased staff costs calculated as a new “engagement initiative” is developed. The Free Enterprise Forum has long complained about the increased complexity and cost of such regulatory hurdles on private developers, this report exposes the increased cost of regulation on taxpayers in the form of expanded government staffing.
Albemarle’s Community Development FY16 staffing is 66.5 Full Time Employees (FTEs) and a payroll of around $3.75 Million dollars (an average salary+benefit cost of ~$56,000)
The report highlights the variable nature of the development review process:
CDD workload is largely a function of the number of applications submitted. Most applications (e.g. site plans, subdivisions, rezonings) have State defined timeframes for acting on the application and some applications (e.g. VSMP) are automatically approved if CDD does not meet that timeframe. Recognizing the County doesn’t control the number of applications and has legal timeframes for acting, the remaining strategies for managing workload are to 1) adjust the staff resources to match the workload and 2) adjust the expectations to match the workload.
While the report is accurate regarding state mandated timelines for review, Albemarle also has a significant pre-application process and does not start the state clock running until they accept the application as complete. This increases the timeframe, and cost, for a project to gain approval.
In addition, not all development reviews are created equal the site plan for the bank on the corner should be significantly easier to manage than the Stonefield development. The charts provided regarding rezonings and site plans fail to capture the differentiation between complexity of reviews.
The staff report also contradicts itself regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the department. In an early section of the report, staff suggests reviewers are in a high pressure position:
Additionally, given the adversarial nature of development review, that additional 10 hours/week adds considerable stress to those workers and decreases the discretionary time to “decompress”. This can accelerate burnout and increase turnover.
Later in the document, staff suggests the exact opposite for some applications:
Finally, these applications are much harder to track in terms of review efforts, as they often call for a collaborative approach, rather than formal submissions, to address comments raised by staff, the public, Planning Commission or Board. While this informality in process improves the overall review quality and provides for better customer service, it makes it makes formally defining a “review” difficult.
So which is it, adversarial or collaborative approach results in a more time consuming review?
Then there is an issue of turnover in the department. Ignoring significant retirements, over 18% of Community Development’s workforce left the employ of Albemarle County in FY16.
This “brain drain” is distressing and expensive as it is anticipated that it takes a minimum of 6 months to bring a new employee to the level where they may work independently. This Albemarle exodus might present the best argument for increasing the staffing levels or it might be a canary in the coal mine suggesting the policies and procedures are not supportive of good, efficient planning practices.
As we watch the Albemarle Planning Commission meet on a quarterly basis to discuss “big topics” where they have little to no jurisdiction, the Free Enterprise Forum has to ask “Who is calculating the cost of such a meeting to the taxpayer?”
As applicants are routinely requested to defer their state mandated right for a “speedy” hearing to provide the commission or board their requested more detailed information in an additional meeting, it is important to recognize it is not just the applicant that is incurring cost – it is the taxpayer.
While we appreciate the limited metrics provided by Community Development staff, we believe better metrics could be developed for this important review. In addition, we would welcome a review of the Development Review Task Force recommendations that were finalized and presented to the Supervisors almost a decade ago (2007) but never fully enacted.
Despite our misgivings, we predict Community Development will get the two new planners and one more administrative person to bring their headcount to nearly 70 employees.
Increasing employees, increasing payrolls and ever increasing complexity of regulatory regimens – this, unlike Freidman’s prescription, – will continue to grow government, increase cost and reduce our regions economic development opportunities.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non-profit public policy organization focused on local governments in Central Virginia. For more information visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org.
Photo Credits: Albemarle County