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Jackson moving forward with changes to code enforcement, planning departments

jacksonWith a report looking at the ins and outs of work in its planning and permitting/code enforcement departments now finished, Jackson County is ready to start implementing the report’s recommendations.

“We’ve completed that project. We’ve closed the loop,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said by way of explaining commissioners’ vote last week to accept the finished report. 

Commissioners voted unanimously to OK the 106-page document prepared by Charlotte-based Benchmark Planning. 

“If there were any additional concerns or requests for information, that would have been the appropriate time for commissioners to make those requests to Benchmark,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

None were broached, so now Wooten is getting together an action plan to improve operations in the two departments. Commissioners will likely discuss the matter at their Nov. 17 work session, and Wooten is ready to move ahead with some of the more minor, workflow-related changes that don’t require action from commissioners. 

Commissioners will have some more significant suggestions to consider, the biggest of which is Benchmark’s recommendation that they create a new management position to oversee the two departments. The salary for such a position would be significant, and commissioners balked at the suggestion.  

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“I just can’t see us being in the position with revaluation to create a very high-level position in our organization,” Wooten said, echoing sentiments expressed by commissioners. The revaluation, which will go into effect for the 2016-17 fiscal year, will mean county property taxes are based on lower values than they are now, meaning overall revenue will go down if the tax rate doesn’t change. 

At the same time, commissioners are in the process of hiring a new planning director. The position has been vacant since Gerald Green resigned from it in May to take a planning director job in Knoxville. Commissioners have extended an offer to one of the candidates and are waiting for a response — but whoever takes the job will likely have their own ideas to offer. 

One task the new director will oversee is the creation of a unified development ordinance — basically, pulling each of Jackson County’s 18 ordinances related to land development under one heading. The result would be much more user-friendly than the jumble of ordinances on the books now, Benchmark representatives told commissioners. But combing through all those ordinances and stitching them together in an understandable, non-repetitive way will likely require help from an outside contractor. 

“It’s just one of those projects that would be all-encompassing and would suck up all the time that you had if you put in all the effort necessary,” Wooten said. 

Other recommendations for commissioners to consider include co-locating all the departments that deal with builders, increasing permit fees, moving ordinance-related responsibilities to the Planning Department and providing more training opportunities for employees and board members.

Commissioners had requested the audit after concern arose this spring that the Permitting and Code Enforcement Department hadn’t been fully carrying out its responsibilities. First, there was confusion over whether the department was responsible for inspecting the R-5000 road project to build another entrance to Southwestern Community College — Director Tony Elders at first said it wasn’t but later conceded that his department was responsible for inspecting the project.

Then, in Green’s last Planning Board meeting before leaving for his new position, he and Elders argued over whose job it was to enforce the Mountain Hillside Development Ordinance, revealing the fact that neither department had been owning responsibility for enforcement. Other issues came to light as well, including disagreement over the legality of a steep slope construction project in Dillsboro and discovery that Elders’ department hadn’t been collecting affidavits from builders claiming exemption from the requirement to hold a general contracting license. The state had required the affidavits since 2011. 

These questions prompted commissioners to pay $15,350 for a report probing operations in both departments — planning as well as permitting and code enforcement. Completed last month, the report delivered favorable results. Benchmark representatives said nothing nefarious or negligent was going on in either department but delivered recommendations to improve the effectiveness of and communication between the two departments. 

The report is available online at www.jacksonnc.org/PDF/work-session/oct-20/20151020-item1.pdf.

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