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Local editorial

County tackles planning reform Improving the process won't be easy, but commissioners are committed

Ask anyone who's dealt with the Jackson County Planning Department and you're likely to hear a tale of frustration with delays, poor customer service and, too often, added expense. That's not unique to the county, nor is it the fault of the dedicated planners who do their best to help property owners and developers navigate the twisted labyrinth of Oregon's land-use regulations.

But it is the fault of a system that is in many ways dysfunctional, according to a new performance audit. County commissioners hired a Sacramento-based consulting firm to thoroughly examine the county's existing Roads, Parks and Planning Department and recommend improvements.

For starters, the audit report recommends separating planning from the roads and parks functions and creating a new Development Services Department, incorporating planning, building inspection, code enforcement and septic permitting under one umbrella. That's a sensible step.

Beyond that, the report recommends improvements that will require the county to spend more money than it does now. Exactly how much more isn't yet known, but county staff are working to crunch the numbers and present them to the commissioners in two weeks.

Specifically, the consultants found that the Planning Department is asking too few employees to do too much work, and isn't paying them enough to boot. Those factors, combined with inadequate office space and a cumbersome permit process, result in a staff culture of survival rather than customer service, the report concluded.

The money to raise salaries, hire additional planners and move or expand the planning office could come from other county budgets, increased development fees or a combination of the two. Commissioner C.W. Smith says developers have told him they would be willing to pay higher fees if that would improve the efficiency of the department and help them get their projects approved faster.

— It's clear that the commissioners are committed to improving the situation.

In November, while the audit was still being conducted, the consultants recommended several quick fix steps that could be implemented immediately. Chief among those was to create a Site Plan Review Team with representatives from all county departments affected by new development. That committee has already begun meeting.

No one likes dealing with government regulation, and making the experience as painless as possible will go a long way toward restoring public faith in government. The county is to be commended for recognizing that problem exists and taking real steps to solve it.