Planning Departments Downsize, Private Firms Scramble For Jobs

Significant reductions in general fund revenues and building activity have caused many cities and counties in California to reduce planning department staffs. Numerous jurisdictions have shrunk staff sizes by one-quarter to one-half, and more cuts may be coming during the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The tough economy is also hitting private consulting firms. Consultants that typically work for private developers are seeking public-sector jobs, and large outfits are bidding on ever-smaller projects, creating a high level of competition. Attendance at professional conferences and workshops is decreasing, while training opportunities that require no travel, such as "webinars" and audio broadcasts, appear to be gaining popularity.

Some local governments have cut planning and building staffs by eliminating vacant positions, encouraging retirements, and moving planners and support personnel to jobs elsewhere in the organization. Other agencies, though, have had to lay off professional and administrative employees. Some jurisdictions have imposed furloughs and reduced salaries.

The public planner layoffs are the first widespread layoffs since 1992-93, when the economy was sour and the state balanced its budget by shifting city and county revenues to schools. The size and speed of the current planning cuts relate largely to fee-dependence: Planning departments that receive few general fund dollars have been hit hardest by the decline in development.

"I've never been through anything like this before," said Mike Moore, community development director for the City of Petaluma. Last fall, Moore had to reduce his staff of 23 to 12 workers. He found different positions for three workers, but eight employees went out the door. Even with the cutbacks in planning and other departments, Petaluma is facing another major budget deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and additional Community Development Department cuts are likely, he said.

"The specifics in each jurisdiction are unique," said Robert Sherry, Sacramento County planning and community development director and the head of the County Planning Director's Association. "It's a little hard to generalize except to say we're all suffering."

Sherry has not had to lay off anyone, at least not yet. Four employees have relocated to other county jobs, and three others are on loan to other entities the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the local air district and another county department that have funds available. More planners may find themselves assigned outside the county Planning and Community Development Department in the near future, Sherry said.

During recent years, Sacramento County's planning department received about $4 million annually in fees, but that amount fell by 75% in only two years, according to Sherry. Because the department refunded fees for some canceled projects, the department netted only $9,000 in fees during January, and Sherry fears the department could face a month when it returns more fees than it receives. The department has been able to rely on the county's general fund to cover up to 40% of expenses, but those days may be ending. In March, administrators estimated the county faced a $186 million hole in its $5 billion budget for 2009-10.

"The hit this [fiscal] year was on fees, but next year it's going to be on the general fund," Sherry said. "This is the third downturn I've experienced in my career, and this is the scariest and the deepest I have ever seen. And I still don't know when we will hit bottom."

Kurt Christiansen, director of economic and community development in Azusa and president of the California Chapter, American Planning Association (CCAPA), agreed with Sherry that generalization is difficult. Some cities in eastern Los Angeles County, such as El Monte and Pomona, have laid off planning staff because of revenue reductions, while others with essentially flat revenues, such as Pasadena, have been able to hold steady, Christiansen said.

Some jurisdictions began cutting fast and deep last calendar year, while others took numerous steps before resorting to staff reductions. Like Petaluma, the City of Marysville began reducing staff last calendar year, when it laid off the community development coordinator. Meanwhile, Yuba County (where Marysville is the county seat) waited until February of this year to slash eight positions from the Community Development and Services Agency. As in Sacramento County, Yuba County reported a fee revenue decline of about 75%. San Joaquin County this year cut eight positions from the Community Development Department, including five that were filled. Last year, the department eliminated nine unfilled positions. The City of San Jose recently laid off 28 planners, building inspectors and support staff from the Development Services Department; however, because the city has about 7,000 positions, the laid off workers found jobs elsewhere in the organization. Fresno County announced in January it would lay off 28 Department of Public Works and Planning employees, mostly planners and building inspectors, by the end of this fiscal year. Because of a slight jump in permit activity, those employees were still at work in March.

Planners in private practice are also feeling a pinch. Lance Schulte, a senior community planner for HDR in San Diego, said pre-proposal meetings are packed with consultants these days and competition for jobs has increased. "People are looking at different projects to work on that, in the past, they wouldn't have considered," said Schulte, CCAPA vice president of public information.

Some landowners and developers are pushing forward with entitlement activity in anticipation of an economic rebound, which is providing work for consultants, according to Schulte and Christiansen.

"Without the small stuff coming in, it's going to be really difficult for cities to keep their planners busy," added Christiansen. He recommended that agencies and their planners study "how to grab a hold of the economic stimulus money and look at a more green way of doing business." He also endorsed the concept of agencies sharing personnel costs and hours. Azusa, for example, is considering taking on half the cost, and getting half the time, of a neighboring city's housing expert.

The public agency cutbacks are threatening to eat into long-term planning capabilities and even day-to-day service levels. Numerous agencies have streamlined hours during which staff members are available at the counter or even by telephone. Petaluma's Moore, who chairs the Bay Area Planning Director's Association, said the greenhouse gas reduction mandates of AB 32 and SB 375 could not come at a worse time for cash-strapped local governments.

"We do not have any advance planning function at all," a frustrated Moore said of his city. "It simply is not funded. So our ability to respond to the demands of SB 375 is limited."

There could be funding available in the future, though. Legislation approved last year (SB 732, Steinberg) provides guidance for awarding $90 million in Proposition 84 grants for local and regional planning. The Schwarzenegger administration's new Strategic Growth Council is currently working on guidelines and timeframes for awarding that money. In addition, the California Association of Councils of Government is sponsoring legislation (SB 406, DeSaulnier) that would permit COGs to impose a $2 surcharge on vehicle license registrations to fund regional planning efforts.

There is little reason to believe fee revenues will increase in the near term, however. The Construction Industry Research Board forecast in late March that new home starts would total only 50,000 in 2009 down 23% from last year's 64,752 starts, which was the lowest figure on record.

Christiansen said CCAPA is ramping up its professional assistance to planners. "We put out a survival guide the last time a recession hit, and we're looking to update that and get it on our website as quickly as possible," he said. "We'll make a pitch to city managers in the next few months not to cut training and not to cut professional memberships. With pay cuts and all, they may be the only benefits their employees get."

The planning organization is also looking into increased use of webinars, podcasts and other means of providing training inexpensively, said Christiansen, who noted that some American Institute of Certified Planners members are worried about getting adequate continuing education credits.

Contacts:
Kurt Christiansen, CCAPA and City of Azusa, (626) 812-5236.
Lance Schulte, CCAPA and HDR, (858) 712-8304.
Mike Moore, Bay Area Planning Directors Association and City of Petaluma, (707) 778-4301.
Robert Sherry, County Planning Directors Association and Sacramento County, (916) 874-6141.
Strategic Growth Council: http://opr.ca.gov/index.php?a=sch/growthcouncil.html