County lays off three in planning department

By Ryan Wynne

On Monday, June 7, two senior planners and one clerical employee were given notice that they would be laid off at the beginning of July when the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services Department began the first of three phases of layoffs. It is still unknown how many employees will be lost in the last two phases.

The cuts come just weeks after department director David Stalheim announced he would be leaving his position to take a job with the city of Bellingham. Assistant department director Sam Ryan is now the acting planning department director. She said the layoffs are the result of lower than projected revenues from permits and fees.

But slowed building activity isn’t the only culprit. Ryan said the county’s general fund is suffering and the department can’t keep dipping into it. The general fund is used to offset the difference between department revenues and expenses and Ryan said that fund is expected to see a reduction of an estimated $4.5 million next year.

Budgeting shortfalls can already be seen at the county planning department. Ryan attributes most of the shortage to lower than expected revenue, but it is partially the result of staff members, who were expected to leave the department, staying on. She estimates that by the end of the year the shortage will be approximately $554,000 and said reductions in revenue are expected to continue. The department is preparing for a budget reduction of approximately $900,000 in 2011 and the same in 2012.

“The bottom line is that we are just not meeting our projected goals,” she said.

Ryan said the department has been very up front with employees regarding the lagging revenues and the potential for shortages, but that doesn’t mean the process will be easy.

“It’s hard to do this because these people are good people,” she said.

Dean Martin was one of the planners to receive bad news Monday, but he said it didn’t come as a surprise. Martin has worked for the department for nearly two years. Most employees in the department, if not all, have worked there longer. He said when employees were notified about a month ago that staff reductions would occur, he realized his lack of seniority made him a prime target.

Martin said he loves some of the work he’s doing, but he understands the decision to let people go.

“There’s a tremendous budget problem and this is one of the ways they have chosen to address it,” Martin said.

It’s not just those being laid off who will feel the burn. Martin said those staying on will figure out a way to make things work, but they will definitely feel it too.

“I feel bad for the people that are left. I really do,” Martin said. “There was already way too much work to do.”

Ryan said employees continuing on in the department will get more cross training and be expected to branch out and fill some of the voids left by those who are let go. Still, the department may have to cut back some of the things it does.

She said department personnel will try to maintain services and participation in programs on some level, even if that level is lower. For instance, Martin was involved with the county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee. When he leaves, the department will likely still have representation on the committee, but participation will be more limited. The same holds true for other programs personnel are involved with, she said.

The department is in the process of deciding which services and programs are highest on the list of priorities to determine where reductions should and should not be made. Ryan said she is working with the executive office and council to establish those priorities, but she knows two areas that will not lose  attention: permits and compliance with the Growth Management Act.

She said getting permits out in a timely manner is a high priority because building activity affects the whole economy, but also said it may take the department a bit longer to process those permits.

Ryan said dates for the last two phases of layoffs are not yet definitive, but said the second will probably occur between August and September, and the third between October and November. Ryan said the department will try to give employees at least a month’s notice.

For his part, Martin said he remains optimistic about his post-planning department future. He said the next few weeks will be hectic as he wraps up projects, but also that he will miss a lot of the work he is doing. That’s why, even after his last day on July 6, Martin wants to stay involved with agricultural planning to some degree, and definitely plans to stay in Bellingham.

“My wife and I love Whatcom County and we’re going to stay,” Martin said. “There’s no way we are going anywhere.”

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