Pin It
Planner in LansingShould Lansing hire a full time planner or a part time planning consultant?  This has been one of the most contentious issues between Town Board members for over three years.  When the board was composed of three Democrats and two Republicans it voted 3-2 to fund a full time planner in the 2014 budget.  But the tables turned.  After a search that included final interviews of qualified candidates, the the new board, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats , voted 3-2 against hiring the top one.  At that point Councilmaen Ed LaVigne (who was elected Supervisor last week) and Robert Cree took on the task of finding a part time planning consultant that eventually resulted in the hiring of Michael Long.

A lot of claims were bandied about on both sides.  Supervisor Kathy Miller and Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins favored a full time planner, and talked about overall savings when you consider the extra costs associated with additional attorney and engineering fees that would be required becase a part time planner would not have time to do some of the tasks the additional consultants currently take on.  LaVigne, Cree and Councilman Doug Dake cited various reasons for hiring an independent consultant, claiming the savings in salary and not having to pay benefits would be better for taxpayers.  This argument carried over into last month's campaign, with LaVigne saying that hiring a part time consultant saved the town $50,000.  In all this time nobody checked the numbers.  A few weeks before election day Hopkins decided to figure out which would actually cost taxpayers less.

"I didn't expect to hear the conclusion that we had saved $50,000," she says.  "When I started hearing that I said 'Where are the numbers?'  I didn't see any evidence, so I went to work."

Hopkins analyzed Town planning spending, projecting this year's total expenditures based on the first three quarters.  She compared that to spending in 2012 adjusted for inflation.  2012 was the last year Lansing had a full time planner.  She took her numbers from actual expenses from January through September, looking specifically at Fund B, which is designated for services relating to zoning and planning in the portion of the town outside of the Village of Lansing..

"Could we have done this a quarter of the way into 2015 and projected from that?  Would anybody have believed it?" Hopkins asks.  "I'm still projecting, but I'm projecting off a solid base of 75% of the year.

On May 21, 2014 the Lansing Town Board voted against a resolution to hire a full time municipal planner.  Earlier in that Town Board meeting 23 residents had spoken in favor of the resolution.  While a total of 25 people spoke on planning issues that evening, none spoke in opposition to a full time planner.  But the board members were still split, even though the previous board had included money to fund a full time position in the 2014 budget.

"We had a year of dialog and (the board members were) not agreeing," Hopkins recalls.  "The opinions just couldn't come together.  We couldn't find a consensus.  But I remember at the time of the vote the cost was just one issue.  I remember there being some other concerns."

Councilman Robert Cree had voted against the 2014 budget, which provided funding for a full time planner.  When the board voted not to hire the top candidate several months later, Cree said he was still not convinced a full time planner was necessary.  In 2013 he had challenged the idea because he said he was leery of creating a position that would represent an ongoing expense to the Town. 

"Once you get a person on the payroll and they start to get benefits, that's where we tend to lose control, because now they're on state programs where everything is being dictated," he said.

In 2014 LaVigne said he wanted to take a methodical approach, starting with a part time planning consultant and seeing how it went before committing to a full time position.

"We have talked to the Planning Board and heard their concerns," he said.  "We try to address their concerns first.  When I look at these things I listen to all these different people and I don't think now (is a good time for ) a full time planner.  Maybe down the road, but let's just see what's out there for a part time position.  There is no reason to say that is not the right alternative for right now."

Hopkins says she adjusted 2012 dollars by 2% per year, a conservative adjustment she says, because it was actually below 2%.  On review she acknowledged that the Constable expenses -- mainly serving warrants, for example when a property owner is required to demolish a condemned building -- would be the same whether the Planner were full or part time.  However, removing that line from her spreadsheet only reduces the total savings by $71.  She said the idea was to include every expense related to a planner -- she included the Constable line because she did not want to leave out any expenses related to Fund B.

"The question is, have I left anything out to skew the numbers?" Hopkins says.  "The answer is no.  It is my understanding that we take any bill that comes in, and it is placed in the appropriate functional area."

  A B C D E
  2012 2012 2015 (Column C-B) (Column B to C)
  Actual Expenses Actual expenses Projected expenses Increase/(decrease) % change
    adjusted 2%/yr      
Salaries and Wages          
     Clerk $36,366 $38,592 $39,371 $779 2.0%
     Safety/zoning code inspector $41,926 $44,492 $57,284 $12,792 28.8%
     Planner $56,951 $60,437 $50,373 ($10,064) -16.7%
     Legal services $21,860 $23,198 $46,624 $23,426 101.0%
     Engineer services $511 $542 $2,564 $2,022 372.7%
     Constable $124 $132 $203 $71 54.0%
Benefits $72,360 $76,789 $51,110 ($25,679) -33.4%
Non-salary expense $9,657 $10,248 $16,227 $5,978 58.3%
Total Annual Expense for Fund B $239,755 $254,430 $263,755 $9,326 3.7%

According to Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins' calculation the Town could have saved $9,326 this year if a full time planner had been hired.  if you remove the 'Constable' line the savings would be $9,255.

She also charted revenues from things like building permits and other Planning/Zoning Office income, showing a $53,693 increase in B Fund, and an additional increase of $36,484 in Fund TA, which holds revenues paid directly from developers to cover costs incurred by the town on their behalf.  Hopkins says that increase shows that the Codes Office is busier in 2015, which she says is an argument for a full time planner.

Hopkins says that the revenue would be the same regardless, but 109.6% more revenue in Fund B and 183.4%in Fund TA implies that more services are needed from a town planner and the Codes Office.

"Planners don't generate revenue," she says.  "The revenue is generated by the volume of development.  Planners guide and service that development.  Presumably that revenue would be there regardless of whether we have a part time or a full time planner.  The revenue simply shows volume, not the cost of servicing that volume."

LaVigne says that the necessary planning work of the Town is being handled by Long.

"The reality is the planning consultant is not overwhelmed with work even though the comprehensive plan is a primary goal," LaVigne said yesterday. "Part time employees do not drain our budget with benefits."

But Hopkins says there are a lot of things that are not being done that a full time planner would do.  Key among them is grant writing, which could bring in more than enough dollars to justify a planner's salary.  She sites a successful agricultural grant that a past Lansing planner co-wrote with a Planning Board member.  She says a full time planner would restore a supervisory responsibility in the Codes Office, taking that burden off of the Supervisor's Office.  Other benefits she cites are town-wide coordination of storm water issues, professional support for citizen advisory boards, coordination with neighboring municipalities, providing continuity and context in town planning, and proactive assessments of ongoing programs and services.

Hopkins notes that a town equal to Lansing's size has two planning positions on the books, and the Town of Ithaca with a 20% higher tax base than Lansing's has four planners.  She also recalls that when the Lansing Sewer Committee met for the last time to talk about what went right and what went wrong in that project (which never came to fruition) committee members said the critical factor that might have transformed the project into one the Town could have accepted was a planner.

She noted another argument, namely that planners can preempt costly mistakes that could, in the worst case scenario, embroil the Town in lawsuits.

"Planners help you avoid mistakes that cost taxpayers a lot of money to fix," she said.

Hopkins says that it would be easy for someone to build on her analysis at the end of this year, simply by replacing her projected 2015 spending with the actual dollars spent.  She says that would prove one way or the other which approach is most economical.

"I think this ($9,326 savings) is conservative," Hopkins says.  "I recently learned that we're now seeing that the 'Safety/zoning code inspector' line is projected to be slightly higher.  When I did this (about three weeks ago) I projected it on 75% of the year.  And I have more information now."

Hopkins presented her findings at the October 21 Town Board meeting, and since then has shared her data with board members and through an email 'blast' to Democratic supporters before the election.  LaVigne remains skeptical.  The Star asked him Wednesday, "If her numbers bear out, would you support hiring a full timer?"

"If the voters had overwhelmingly believed her claims, I do not believe you would be asking my opinion," he says.

Pin It