Livingston OKs hiring interim planning firm

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comOctober 18, 2012 

— City Council members moved forward this month on hiring a firm to provide interim planning services to the city after a decision to get rid of its permanent in-house planner, but some see the move as a step in the wrong direction.

On a 3-2 vote in early October, the council approved a temporary contract with Pacific Municipal Consultants to fill the planning role.

Donna Kenney, who was Livingston's community development director for several years, was laid off soon after the council's vote -- a decision that was made during an August meeting where three of five council members voted to eliminate four positions to balance the city's budget.

In that August meeting, several residents spoke out against the cuts, including Kenney.

"The main concern in losing this position is that it will create a bottleneck of projects rather than streamlining them and the associated fees that the city is counting on to bring it out of this tough economy," Kenney said.

In a document she passed out to the council, Kenney also pointed out that when the city used a contract planner in 2004 and 2005 instead of a permanent employee, the cost was about $20,000 a month, but when Kenney was hired, that cost dropped to less than $6,000 a month.

"The city's financial situation will not improve by replacing the permanent community development director with a less-educated or more-costly contract planner," Kenney said.

She offered alternatives during the meeting, but the majority of the council still decided to eliminate her position.

"The city manager should look into furloughs, and, or a reduction in the hours of noncity staff, like grant consultants," she said. "Or perhaps, the council should ask staff for a vote of confidence on the city manager."

During an Oct. 2 meeting, council members wrestled with the idea of contracting with Pacific Municipal.

Councilman Frank Vierra said the council has been unhappy with Pacific Municipal before, in part because of some high bills to the city.

"I don't trust these people," Vierra said. "I'm sorry. That's my opinion."

Pacific Municipal didn't return calls seeking comment by Wednesday evening.

Councilman Gurpal Samra said a full, in-house planning department would be best for the city, but that isn't reasonable right now because of the tight budget.

While the contract the city approved with Pacific Municipal might not be as pricey as it was eight years ago, it's unknown exactly how much it could total.

A Livingston staff report says the cost of the agreement with Pacific Municipal won't exceed $7,500 through most of October. That limit is bumped up to $8,750 afterward.

However, Odi Ortiz, assistant city manager and finance director, said the cost will vary from month-to-month and will be significantly less when there's no activity taking place.

The contract was much higher previously because of the housing boom, Ortiz said. Now, the city only has one or two development projects a year.

"We don't want to have a fixed cost when there's no activity taking place," Ortiz said. "We'll be watching the amounts that we budgeted, and we're going to make sure we're going to stay within those figures."

During a meeting last week, members of the Livingston Planning Commission expressed their displeasure about losing Kenney, who worked closely with them on planning issues.

Luis Flores, chairman of the commission, said it's a shame that Kenney is no longer with the city.

"It's going to be real tough for us from now on," he said.

Roy Soria, vice chairman of the commission, said that while he understands the city's budget constraints, he's sad the position was eliminated.

He said having a part-time consultant "didn't work in the past, and it won't work now."

City officials said the contract with Pacific Municipal likely will be reviewed after about a year.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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