MALTA – The Town Board will study the impact of replacing one of two vacant senior planner positions with an in-house professional engineer despite continued discussions of delays to the work of updating town zoning due to understaffing in the planning department.
Town Supervisor Vincent DeLucia broached the subject of replacing one of the two vacant senior planner positions with a town engineer during Monday’s Town Board meeting, saying the suggestion had been made to him as a means of saving on consulting engineer costs while offering town planners the benefit of increased access to engineering services.
Town Board member John Hartzell said that he had made the suggestion based partially on his own experience as an attorney involved in development, working with neighboring communities whose planning departments are smaller overall but include in-house engineers.
Hartzell argued that having an engineer on staff would provide continuity for projects, increase the availability of services and could save the town money.
According to Hartzell the financial impact of employing an in-house town engineer could be budget neutral as a portion of the fees from developers for town engineering services normally paid to the town’s engineering consultants, Chazen Companies, could be diverted towards the salary of a town engineer.
During Monday’s meeting the Town Board voted unanimously to approve engineering services from Chazen for 2018, Hartzell pointed out that in some instances those services cost as much as $150 per hour. If a town engineer position was created Chazen would be kept on as consulting engineers as the town’s workload could not be satisfied by a single engineer.
“I think we’ve kind of matured as a town to the point where there’s enough work that we keep this person busy. I think there is an increasing need to have somebody who is dedicated to our town and our town only with their energy, effort and expertise to guide us in dealing with engineering issues. Infrastructure issues are increasingly on our agenda,” Hartzell said.
He noted that the town’s senior code enforcement officer who handles the majority of the work at the GlobalFoundries chip plant, Tim Murphy, will inevitably retire some day and a town engineer would have the training and knowledge of town code to be able to assist until the position could be filled.
“The impact of GlobalFoundries on our community is causing a demand for that level of technical expertise that many communities don’t have,” Hartzell added.
DeLucia voiced his support for substituting a senior planner position for a town engineer, but said that acting Building and Planning Coordinator Jaime O’Neill, who was permanently appointed to the position by the Town Board during the meeting, had expressed reservations over the change.
O’Neill, who was present for the meeting, pointed out that planning and engineering are different disciplines and the role of a planner involves activities that may not interest an engineer, such as attending Zoning Board of Appeals meetings to discuss variances.
Looking ahead towards planned work on the town’s comprehensive plan, O’Neill said that it was important to her to have a planner on staff.
Earlier in the meeting the Town Board declared itself lead agency for work rezoning Route 9 North. Work to rezone Route 9 North was begun last year before being delayed by the departure of town planning staff for other employment opportunities.
Hartzell said that he supported filling one of the two vacant senior planner positions to have three planning professionals in the department. He agreed that planning and engineering are distinct disciplines, but said they often overlap.
“If you go up to the Planning Board in Saratoga Springs for example, the engineer has some things to say about engineering and the planners have things to say about land use. They’re very different, but they overlap, for instance, in the site plan approval process. That’s why right now we have Chazen at those meetings and we pay for their services,” Hartzell said.
O’Neill agreed that the planning department would benefit from having an engineer on staff when asked by DeLucia. Board members Cynthia Young and Hartzell pointed out that the department of parks and recreation and the highway department would also benefit from the addition.
When asked for his opinion on the cost of creating the engineering position, Town Comptroller Kevin King agreed that the position could theoretically be budget neutral depending on the salary for the position and what percentage of developer’s fees are diverted to the position.
King went on to highlight the unpredictability of using fees to fund a town position, saying, “The other big variable is development. You don’t know what planning fees are coming in, it’s not a regular source of income.”
“It’s just like any other of our budgeted revenues, it’s volatile. It’s based upon the economy, so if the economy is going, we have planning projects in process and we’ve got the fees to offset the engineer’s salary. If we don’t have those projects, you don’t have it,” he said.
Town Board member Timothy Dunn opposed the idea saying that regardless of the potential benefits or cost savings associated with creating the position it should only be done as part of the normal budget process that was completed a few months earlier.
Dunn said that he supported filling one of the planning positions with the second position to be considered during the budget process.
The remaining Town Board members voiced their support for studying the financial impact of converting one of the senior planner positions to an engineer position.
“I’m OK with you guys starting to do some homework on this, but I want to really articulate that I’m not comfortable doing this outside of the budget process. So, if you guys come back with whiz bang numbers next month, you’re going to expect a no from me on this,” Dunn said. “I support the concept, but I think there is a way to do it and I think that’s part of the budget process.”
Town Board member Craig Warner agreed that the position should be considered during the budget process in October, based on a financial study to be conducted in the interim.
Resident Patty Heidelmark raised concerns over the lingering vacancies in the planning department, asking if there had been difficulty filling the positions.
“Now you’re talking about possibly only allowing one to be filled as we try to decide what we’re doing with the other one. I’m just worried with the amount of development that is going on,” Heidelmark said.
DeLucia said that there the town has had difficulties filling the positions with some applicants rescinding their applications based on the salary and some salaries had been adjusted to meet the expectations of a competitive market.
Before O’Neill’s appointment as building and planning coordinator, another appointment had been set late last year, but DeLucia said the applicant rescinded his application for personal reasons, not due to compensation.
Heidelmark pointed out that the market for engineers may be even more competitive than for planners and the board should be prepared for that.
The Town Board agreed to allow O’Neill to begin seeking applicants for one of the senior planner openings, while leaving the second vacant for the time being. DeLucia tasked King with commencing a financial study of replacing the senior planner position with an in-house professional engineer.