Department Consolidations

Dear Management Doctor:

Our local municipality and county are very seriously considering consolidating the planning and building departments the two jurisdictions have. I am looking for observations, insights and experiences others may have about city and county consolidations. Early research suggests that consolidations fail more often than succeed. I am anxious to learn from anyone who has experience on the matter.

Wary Planner

Dear Wary Planner,

This is a good question to throw to our readers and see what they come up with. I've never worked directly for a two-jurisdiction department but have consulted with several. You might call these and see how things are going at the present time.

  1. The City of Bowling Green and Warren County, Kentucky have a planning staff that serves both the City and the County. They serve a joint Planning Commission. Building Permits are handled separately by the City and County. The staff has to be sensitive to the politics of both the City and County. Some of the customers we interviewed felt the City and County use the Commission for cover.
  2. The City of Columbus and Bartholomew County in Indiana have a joint Planning Department and joint building inspection. The planning staff is in City Hall and reports to the City, while building is in a County building and reports to the County. There is a joint Planning Commission. The City built an award winning City Hall that had space for the building function but the County decided not to move its building function into it.
  3. Bloomington, Indiana has its own planning department but has its building permits processed by the County.
  4. The City of Louisville, Kentucky had a joint planning staff and Planning Commission that handled both the City and Jefferson County. Under agreement, the staff reported to the County Judge. The City and County each had their own building function. Recently the City and County have merged into a metro government and it is assumed that all functions will then merge. Under the old structure the City tended to be more progressive than the County and this tended to negatively impact the planning program.
  5. Aspen, Colorado and Pitken County have the City and County planning staffs co-located. The two functions share the administrative staff, which is jointly managed by the two departments. The building function also handles both the City and County.

On the face of it, having joint building and planning programs makes a lot of sense. Builders and developers generally are working in both jurisdictions and it makes no sense to have two sets of regulations. Planning issues also cross the jurisdiction lines. The biggest issue is the difficulty of staff answering to two masters. For political cover, it may be useful to have a powerful joint Planning Commission. It could also be useful to have an independent budget.

Keep us informed. We'd like to hear how you progress.

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

The City of Kansas City and Wyandotte County, Kansas consolidated several years ago. Around here, the consolidation is generally considered a success, with a variety of positive outcomes and some processes still underway. For more specific information, e.g., about the departments you mentioned, get contact information from the Unified Government web page at www.wycokck.org/. For articles about the process and outcomes, search our newspaper, the Kansas City Star. The Public Administration program at the University of Kansas probably has student papers or articles by faculty studying the consolidation ó you can get contact information from the University web page at www.ku.edu/~kupa/

Bruce Wiggins
City of Kansas City, MO


Kokomo and Howard County, Indiana have a joint planning office serving two separate plan commissions with different ordinances. The City has a separate building department. The County does not have one.

It is important that the two jurisdictions document the details of the relationship. (We have an "Inter-local Agreement.Ē) Who is responsible for housing the staff? How is the budget approved? Is the staff considered city or county employees for administrative purposes? Who hires and fires anyone?

The dual jurisdiction status can have the advantage of keeping some of the politics out as you are shared with the other jurisdictions. At other times, the status will leave you out, as you are not truly a city or county employee.

Dealing with two ordinances is more work. Clearly, identifying which jurisdiction the customer is concerned with and keeping copies of both ordinances at your desk helps.

Glen R. Boise, AICP
Kokomo - Howard County Plan Commission


I read with interest the question from Wary Planner concerning consolidations of city and county planning departments. I was the Director of the Humboldt County Regional Planning Department for three years where the City of Winnemucca and Humboldt County, Nevada consolidated all planning activities. We operated under a jointly-funded department with a Regional Planning Commission that could have no more than half of its membership from the County. We did not consolidate the building functions. In all, I would say that this consolidation worked very well. In fact, all planning and subdivision issues were addressed in a regional manner. By the nature of the beast, these topics were reviewed by scrutinizing the impacts to both the city and the county. Neither jurisdiction could take precedence.

Nonetheless, this could create some "weird" situations for me as the director. Occasionally, with applications of regional significance that required testimony, I would be required to give testimony on the city's position (to the county) and then I would have to give testimony on the county's position (to the city), which weren't always the same. Sometimes this occurred at joint meetings and sometimes at separate meetings. You have to be very careful not to double talk; you must stick to the facts and make sure you do your homework. This would not be a job for a 'yes man.í As you know, what's important to the county politically may not be important or may have a different importance to the city politically.

I answered to both the City Manager and the County Administrator (two bosses). This could, in itself, create interesting situations. I found myself acting as the go-between (diplomat is probably a better word for it) between the two governments. The same occurred with the City Council and the County Commission. I was the one thing they had in common and therefore, they relied on me to keep the lines of communication open when all other lines collapsed. This was, needless to say, challenging. I enjoyed every minute of it. I find myself grinning as I reminisce about this position. I have a great fondness for those I worked for and our planning efforts won one state and two national planning awards.

Wary Planner, I would not fear consolidation. For the right person, this can be a dream come true. Being required to look at planning issues on a regional scale. Perfecting the ability to deal with different political realities. Getting jurisdictions to work together for a common goal. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Kent W. Anderson, AICP
Kelso, WA


We used to be combined but now, thankfully, we split. Iíve seen our operations run much more smoothly. My advise to the Wary Planner is DONíT DO IT.

Anonymous


The Mesa County Building Department processes (and inspects) building permits for the City of Grand Junction, Colorado. It works well because there's a good relationship between the city planning staff and the county building official. They won't issue Certificates of Occupancy without city approval.

In another community I worked for, the Klamath County Building Department processed and inspected building permits for the City of Klamath Falls, Oregon. It didn't work so well because the building official was less cooperative in withholding C of O's when requested by the City.

Bill Nebeker
City of Susanville, CA