Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson proposes sweeping changes to department

As Augusta’s first female and first black planning and development director, Melanie Wilson has turned a few heads since she took the job in August, training for a month with retiring longtime director George Patty.

“I’m a Southerner, from North Carolina. That helps tremendously,” said Wilson, who was planning director for Wake County, N.C., home of Raleigh, for seven years.

Backed by a consultant’s critical analysis set in motion before she was hired, Wilson proposed to the Augusta Commission on Thursday a sweeping reorganization of the department’s planning side, to include requiring a dozen employees to reapply for reclassified jobs, and the addition of 10 new positions.

Augusta, despite being Georgia’s second-largest city, has only two certified planners – Wilson and Planning Manager Paul DeCamp – far fewer than the nearly 20 planners the city once had, Wilson said.

The shortage effectively hamstrings the department, responsible for 305 square miles, making it strictly reactive, with little time for land use, long range or other types of advanced planning, she said.

Though the city commission recently approved a bare-bones 2014 budget that requires all departments to cut 2.4 percent, Wilson reminded commissioners Thursday of the revenue her department manages to generate, despite operating on limited funds.

“A lot of people forget just how much money this department generates, versus how much money they are budgeted,” she said.

Planning and Develop­ment, to which the city’s licensing and inspections department was added in 2011, took in $13.7 million in business license and related fees in 2012 on a budget of $1.8 million that included $436,000 for demolitions, she said. Revenues this year are at $13.8 million. Even the small planning side has generated nearly $917,000 this year, she said.

“We are a donor department,” said Wilson.

Wilson proposed that her department not be required to make the 2.4 percent cuts and instead be allowed to spend $1 million more for the additional positions and a handful of raises, including increasing an effective, 25-year construction manager’s salary to $70,000. “He gets offers a lot,” Wilson said.

Most of Wilson’s recommendations for reorganization came from consultant Malik Watkins of the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The commission hired Watkins to analyze the department in early 2013.

Other changes include adopting a set of values for the department with a focus on integrity, ethics and customer service, she said.

Commissioner Marion Williams said the idea of making staff reapply for jobs gave him heartburn, while Commissioner Bill Lockett, who was complimentary of the proposal, asked whether it was the staff’s fault their skills might be lacking.

“That’s a loaded question,” said Wilson. “In other cities … other MPOs (metropolitan planning organizations), you would not be in a position of having so many people not having the professional training that you needed. You just wouldn’t.”

Employing skilled staff would cut back reliance on consultants and provide the opportunity for more revenue. Incoming businesses will pay for data, while the city is missing out on grants or not putting them to best use, she said.

Wilson said she was unaware she’d missed a Wednesday deadline to get the proposal on the agenda for next Tuesday’s regular meeting. The commission could add the item with unanimous consent.

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