Local governments in Tennessee seek solutions to planning budget cuts

Local governments in Tennessee seek solutions to planning budget cuts

September 20th, 2011 by Ben Benton in News

This Dunlap, Tenn., subdivision is a result of local government contracting with the Southeast Tennessee Development District for new developments. It is located at the foot of Daus Mountain, just south of downtown Dunlap.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S THE PLAN?

The Southeast Tennessee Development District has contracted with 19 local governments to provide planning services after the state's elimination of planning help: Benton, Dayton, Decatur, Ducktown, Dunlap, Englewood, Etowah, Graysville, Jasper, Kimball, Marion County, McMinn County, Meigs County, Monteagle, Niota, Polk County, Powells Crossroads, Rhea County and Spring City.

Source: Southeast Tennessee Development District

Beth Jones, Southeast Tennessee Development District executive director

Before July, local governments' planning commissions could contract with the state for planning help, but the service was eliminated from this year's state budget as part of cost-cutting measures.

The Southeast Tennessee Development District, and its sibling associations around the state, stepped in to fill the planning gap, said Beth Jones, executive director of the Chattanooga-based agency.

"Our executive board voted to assume those responsibilities for any local government that wanted to contract under the same conditions [those governments had with the state]," Jones said.

Larger governments, such as Chattanooga, Hamilton County, neighboring Bradley County and Cleveland, have planning offices and certified planners of their own, but smaller communities often have few resources beyond a group of appointed citizen planning commissioners who might have little or no expertise in the field, officials said.

To serve the 19 smaller and midsize local governments that signed contracts as of Aug. 1, the district beefed up its staff, hiring two more planners and a geographic information systems technician, Jones said.

The state shared its historical and ongoing planning data "so there wouldn't be tremendous loss of work that was already in progress," she said.

There is no planning commission in Sequatchie County, but Dunlap Mayor Dwain Land said planning is crucial for the county seat.

"We're growing and doing a lot of planning," he said.

Dunlap's population growth has been in double figures percentage-wise for a decade, and the city in 2007 finalized annexation of a large section of the county to the south of town.

Land said former state planner Chad Reese was the town's planner when the Local Planning Assistance Office was operating, and now is the town's planner from the development district.

It's important to have the background of knowledge so the transition amid the state's move to eliminate the planning office is seamless, said Land, who also noted he'd worked with Reese before becoming mayor on some developments in the area.

Like Land in Dunlap, Polk County Mayor Hoyt Firestone was "shocked" at the state's announcement that planning help would end.

"We've worked with those folks ever since it's been in place," he said. "We're not large enough to do it in-house."

When the development district offered to pick up the slack, "we took them up on it," Firestone said, because planning expertise gives confidence to incoming residents and county officials alike.

"It helps a prospective buyer of property know that land has been developed in accordance with state law," he said. "It helps us avoid future liabilities and costs."

Marion County and its towns Jasper, Kimball, Powells Crossroads and Monteagle also signed on with the development district for planning services, officials said.

But one Marion County town, South Pittsburg, hired its own planner in filling its city administrator post with Bently Thomas, a former state staff planner.

South Pittsburg Mayor Mike Killian in May expressed reservations about contracting with the development district for planning help, but didn't elaborate.

Jones applauded the town's move.

"The best solution for local government is to have planning assistance sitting there day in and day out," she said.

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