Calaveras supes make sound decision

By Union Democrat staff February 17, 2009 09:37 am

It’s been the way to go among California counties: Combine your building and planning departments into a brand new community development agency to oversee the entire land use business.

But Calaveras County not only bucked that trend, but reversed it. Last month the Board of Supervisors voted to abolish the combined department it created in 2006.

Regression? Lost progress? A major mistake?

Not at all: Given our failing economy, three out of five board members correctly reasoned that keeping a CDA director costing $170,000 a year (salary, benefits and expenses) makes no sense.

Supervisors Tom Tryon, Merita Callaway and Gary Tofanelli may have also noticed that business at the once-booming planning and building department counters has slowed to a trickle. With little business out in the field, they likely asked themselves, what’s the point of having an expensive, top-heavy administration back at the office.

Finally, Calaveras County’s CDA experience was not a good one: After the 2006 departmental merger, former Amador County supervisor Stephanie Moreno got the top job, and trouble began almost immediately.

She first fired several building and planning employees, offending both remaining workers and builders and developers dealing with the new agency. Controversy escalated, and Moreno resigned after the grand jury last summer issued a scathing report on agency operations.

The department’s tumultuous tenure got builders longing for the pre-CDA “good ‘ol days” and had some county officials wondering just what the experiment in consolidation had accomplished.

Maybe it was not meant to happen.

In any case, the board majority should be commended for taking this bold step backwards.

The impropriety of hiring another high-priced administrator is illustrated by the dramatic downturn in Building Department activity:

This January, the department issued 63 permits for buildings collectively valued at $1.9 million. In January 2006, when the foothill real estate market was hitting on all cylinders and the decline had yet to begin, 141 permits for buildings valued at $12.3 million were issued.

Plummeting business had forced layoffs of nearly half the building staff.

The Planning Department is in better shape: Although new applications have slowed, the department has a major backlog of pending projects, and dealing with those is a key job assigned to Brent Harrington.

A former Calaveras County administrator, Harrington was hired by the board as the interim (and final) community development director. He will hack away at the project backlog until the county hires a new planning director, then retire. And the Community Development Agency will at that point cease to exist.

Supervisors Steve Wilensky and Russ Thomas voted against the split, pointing out that having the two departments under one roof would bring better coordination and communication.

Tryon agreed that the CDA might work in a perfect world.

But we do not live in a such a world, and the board — at least in this instance — has done an admirable job dealing with the imperfect one we do live in.