City looking to bring back full-time planner position

Published 10:50 pm Thursday, November 1, 2018

The city of Albert Lea plans to shift to a full-time planner by early next year.

The planner will reduce the role of city consultant WSB & Associates. In 2017, the city paid $142,000 in invoices to the firm, of which $14,000 was reimbursed through developers.

City Planner Molly Patterson-Lundgren of WSB & Associates has an hourly rate of about $124.

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The full-time city planner, expected to be hired by early next year, will be expected to frequently revise land-use ordinances, work on the city’s comprehensive plan review, undergo community engagement and overhaul ordinances based on public input.

“That’s more than one person’s amount of work,” Adams said. “It’s going to take our existing building official, zoning administrator to do some of the work. We’re still going to have to contract out some consultant work, whether it’s on the comprehensive plan, whether it’s on the ordinance writing.”

The transition to a full-time employee is expected to include a one-year increase in the 2019 community development budget from $115,000 to $197,000.

Adams said the move has been discussed for six to nine months at council study sessions.

“Over the last number of years, we’ve been able to work well with just having a planning consultant kind of fill in some gaps on the projects, whether it’s large projects or small projects, in addition to our existing staff,” he said.

Adams noted the city could not justify hiring a full-time city planner after former Community Development Director Bob Graham retired, but has seen an increase in costs, larger projects and business expansions.

“In that same time, we’ve been hearing from businesses from the community and recognizing that a lot of our ordinances need not just an update, but probably an overhaul,” Adams said.

He noted some city ordinances are based on 1970s or 1980s planning, adding ordinances need to be modernized and ambiguities need to be reduced.

“We’re also due for a comprehensive plan update,” he said. “We don’t plan to do a complete re-write, because that would be extraordinary time and cost, so we have to go through our comprehensive plan update, No. 1.”

Adams said land use applications have increased, resulting in increased staff focus and less time for employees to focus on planning.

Adams noted transitioning to a full-time city planner is part of a broader look the city is taking. 

“Over the last few years we’ve really emphasized code enforcement, and we’re seeing the positive results of that in the community survey,” he said. “One of the areas that’s not quite there yet is land use and planning. We recognize that, but we can’t do them all at the same time, so it’s kind of a step-by-step approach.”

Adams predicted shifting to a full-time city planner would eventually save money due to an increase in fees for consultants who typically only work for the city for 20 to 30 hours a week.

The position is expected to be posted in the next couple weeks. A salary range has not been announced. 

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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