State changes affect Lewisburg

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lewisburg's city manager has expanded a Manchester firm's service contract because the governor eliminated the Local Planning Division of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).

Gov. Bill Haslam

In recent years, Kristin Costanzo, a local planner in the ECD office in Nashville, provided Lewisburg planning commissioners with professional advice on how to deal with planning and zoning issues. It's a frequently arcane, but sometimes a controversial and emotional topic, as city councilmen realized again Tuesday when two residents opposed establishment of a crematory on Yell Road.

With the elimination of the state Local Planning Office, Costanzo is no longer available. As a result, City Manager David Orr took the administrative step to assign city consultant Jim Patterson, environmental manager for St. John Engineering of Manchester, Tenn., to succeed Costanzo when needed during planning commission meetings.

During his campaign for governor, Bill Haslam frequently said that if elected, he and/or his administration would examine what the state does, asking a simple question. Is this something the state should be doing, or something that should be done another way?

Whether an on-call consultant will cost more or less for Lewisburg remains to be seen. The city had a contract with the Local Planning Office and the city paid a set fee. To make sure advice is still available to planning commissioners, Orr expanded St. John Engineering's contract and it's to provide planning advice as needed. The firm continues to be the city's consultant on environmental issues the city faces because of stormwater management requirements imposed by amendments to the Clean Water Act of 1972. When the city's population was found to be greater than 10,000 by the 2000 census, a threshold was crossed and the requirements became effective here.

That's an example of how Gov. Bill Haslam's campaign promise has affected Lewisburg.

Valerie Somerville, a spokeswoman for ECD, provided the following insights on the situation from the state's point of view.

In April, Somerville said, "Communities that had contracts with ECD for Local Planning (Office) services, and most Local Planning staff were given 90 days notice that this service was no longer going to be provided by ECD."

The governor, she continued, "tasked ECD with conducting a top-to-bottom review.

"As part of this review, ECD was instructed to ask if each function provided by ECD was best performed by state government," she said, paraphrasing Haslam's campaign promise.

"ECD's top-to-bottom review took 45 days and included input from over 400 economic development stake-holders across the state, and was ultimately presented to the governor.

"As part of this top-to-bottom review, ECD decided to eliminate its Local Planning Office," Somerville said.

"The primary reason for eliminating the Local Planning Office is that while local planning is an important function, it is not one ECD believes the state should be performing.

"Only three other state governments in the country offer local planning services," Somerville continued, "and after the review, ECD determined that these services are better handled at a local level."

Lewisburg's solution to the end of the state Local Planning Office is consistent with Somerville's anticipation.

"There are many alternative providers who can provide local planning services and include private firms, development districts, and municipalities forming inter-local agreements to jointly employ a local planner," she said.

"ECD has been working with each municipality who contracted with the state for local planning services to identify alternative means by which each municipality can receive local planning services moving forward. ECD will continue to employ a small local planning staff for the next year (no later than June 30, 2012) to help ensure this transition is smooth. Statewide local planning director Dan Hawk has agreed to oversee this transition."

Last month, EDC announced grants were available to assist towns and counties in transition from state employees' services.

The Local Planning Office's services to Marshall County were discontinued last year after officials complained that there had been a recurring change of planners. Some worked for a short period of time after college and before landing a full-time job with an engineering firm or a large city or county that had a planning department with several employees.

The county hired Griggs & Maloney of Murfreesboro, a firm that's also been retained by Chapel Hill, although the north Marshall County town has been using Griggs & Maloney as its consulting engineer.