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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wallingford Town Planner hopes for part-time help soon

As published in the Record Journal Friday May 17, 2013

By Andrew Ragali
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

Town Planner Kacie Costello said Thursday that she hopes a part-time assistant town planner/ zoning enforcement officer can be hired as soon as possible, as she is looking for someone to help her with her responsibilities in the Planning and Zoning Department.

Costello, previously the assistant town planner, was promoted to acting town planner when Linda Bush retired in March 2012. Costello was hired as town planner in December 2012. Costello explained that the assistant town planner “has always done the majority of the town’s zoning enforcement,” while the town planner concentrates on larger projects, such as the proposal to create the Incentive Housing Zone downtown and the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, due to the state in 2015.

In the department’s budget request this year, Costello asked that the position of assistant town planner be fully funded, at $63,309. Due to budget cuts and the lack of development, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. decided not to fund the position and instead created a part-time position for $25,000 a year. Dickinson said the primary task would be zoning enforcement.

“There’s just not the kind of action in town for development,” Dickinson said. Most town departments, including police, fire and public works, are understaffed, he said. “The list is considerable,” he said, so reducing staff in the Planning and Zoning Department isn’t unusual.

“It’s more and more difficult to get money to pay for full staffing,” he said.

Costello said she is “doing all the assistant and town planner responsibilities, including zoning enforcement.”

Costello said she is looking forward to preparing a job description with the Personnel Department and mayor’s office as soon as possible. While she said building applications are down, “the office is still pretty busy.”

Without an assistant town planner, Costello is serving as the zoning enforcement officer, pursuing signage, building and property violations. For Costello, this leaves “less time for larger planning activities.”

“Because of the decrease in the amount of staff, I do have to spend more time answering questions at the counter,” Costello said. “We’ve had to make some big decisions in what our priorities are and how time is spent.”

Town Councilor Craig Fishbein, a Republican, said the Planning and Zoning Department’s lack of staff has been an issue.

“It’s nothing against Kacie; I love Kacie,” Fishbein said. “There’s just only so much one-person can do.”

During budget deliberations Tuesday night, Fishbein proposed an amendment that would have eliminated the part-time position and restored the full-time assistant position, but it was voted down. Councilors opposed to the amendment reasoned that the position would add about $40,000 to an already tight budget.

Fishbein said he was concerned that “there’s not a lot of people who have a planning and zoning background able to be a zoning enforcement officer,” making it difficult to fill the part-time position.

Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat who has announced plans to run for mayor in November, said staffing in the department needs to be increased if downtown improvement plans are to be successful. Zandri said people expect downtown to explode with development and popularity, but “it will not explode if we don’t do all the right things,” he said.

Zandri said the town needs staff to put time into future projects, such as the high-speed commuter rail proposed to stop in Wallingford, or the Incentive Housing Zone.

But Dickinson said he doesn’t feel the department is overloaded with long-term projects.

Regarding the high-speed rail plan, Dickinson said “there’s not a lot for the town to do on that, frankly.”

Since the town has been working on the Incentive Housing Zone for more than five years, further work is “more of a fine-tuning,” Dickinson said. “The basics are already there.”

To the point that the Planning and Zoning Department is understaffed, “nothing is ideal,” Dickinson said. “But let’s face it, nothing is ideal.”

“It’s obviously a tough decision,” Town Councilor Tom Laffin, a Republican, said of Dickinson’s not funding a fulltime position this year. “I’ve been in a position where I’ve been overwhelmed and just wanted some more help.”

Laffin said the “prudent way to really get a handle” on how much staffing is needed is to try a part-time position. If the position can’t be filled or doesn’t work out, Laffin said, he would understand the need for a full-time position, but “until then, things need to be prioritized.”

Costello said in future budgets, “I would hope we’d budget for a full-time position instead,” but stressed that she understood the budgetary decisions Dickinson had to make this year due to the lack of state aid.

Dickinson said the position could possibly become fulltime again if there is an increase in workload. “Anything can be potentially adjusted,” he said.