Nearly a decade into a planning partnership between the City of Clinton and Sampson County, it has been a great collaboration but one that is still seeking more efficiencies, the planning director said.
“It really is beneficial to both groups,” said Mary Rose, director of Clinton-Sampson Planning. “I wouldn’t say it benefits one side more than the other. Everyone is treated equitably, fairly and responsibly. It is typically three county citizens coming in our door for every one city citizen, because it is just a larger jurisdiction.”
Rose said one of the main concerns she has heard from residents is the fact that permitting for landowners, builders and others takes multiple stops at various locations in and around Clinton, not to mention the site itself.
“Sometimes individuals come to our office and they have all the information they need,” she said. “Other times we’ll have to go out in the field to verify information or they’ll need more information.”
Rose gave her state of the department address as part of the county’s ongoing budget discussions. Commissioner Harry Parker said he gets a lot of calls about zoning matters, saying he believes there is confusion about the language of “Clinton-Sampson.”
“They say what does Clinton have to do with mine, what does that have to do with me?” said Parker. “I get calls like that all the time.”
Rose said it is a contractual relationship with both governmental entities. In July 2004, Sampson County contracted with the City of Clinton to provide county planning services. The joint Clinton-Sampson Planning Department is there to serve both entities. There are two separate governing boards and two separate planning boards to address all issues.
“I’ve enjoyed working with the other county departments and I think they try to assist us in making an otherwise unpleasant experience sometimes more pleasant,” Rose said. “We do have collaborative efforts even before (those contracts).”
Commissioner Albert Kirby inquired as to whether the county might save money by having its own planning department. Rose said it would not only take more funds, but available resources would take a hit.
“Sampson County could spend the same amount of money they’re spending right now and have a two-person Planning Department, which in my professional opinion, as a planning director, could not properly manage all the General Statute responsibilities associated,” she said. “At a minimum, it would take three employees to manage countywide planning in Sampson County.”
It would mean limited ability of the Planning Department to assist other departments with mapping and other special projects, and come with a price tag that is a minimum of $30,000 more a year than the current collaborative effort.
“And (the county) is getting the benefit of five persons with five different levels of experience and expertise,” said Rose. “Any efficiencies that we develop would possibly be lost and the customer service could likely suffer with the reduction of the experience and expertise that you currently have because of that shared relationship.”
On the flip side, Rose said the City of Clinton entered the relationship with their “eyes wide open” when approached by the county. The city only had two staff members at the time and could not afford any more than that, so the benefits have been on both sides, and for all.
“At any given time, you can come into my office and ask any of my employees what they are working on, there is a strong possibility they will say ‘I’m working on something for Sampson County,’” said Rose. “We may issue 400-some odd permits for Sampson County in a given year. We may issue six zoning permits in Clinton in that same year. It’s very eye opening. There’s just not as much development going on inside the City of Clinton.”
One sticking point in customer service is the lack of a one-stop shop.
Many of the key departments in land development services that involve vital permitting, notably Planning, Building Inspections, Environmental Health and Register of Deeds, are not located in the same place.
“In the big scheme of things, obviously folks coming to one place is going to be better than them having to go to two places,” said Building Inspections director Myron Cashwell.
Environmental Health supervisor Teresa Underwood said such a one-stop shop — or even a planner at a joint location — could be a positive as an education tool in answering questions. As far as having one stop where everything can be done the same day, it is just not feasible, she noted.
“It just won’t happen. Even if we were all housed under one roof, Environmental Health does not issue permits in the office,” Underwood stated. “We have got to go out to the field, because it’s all based on soil evalution. So if someone comes in and goes to Planning and Zoning and gets their approval, they can come to our office and make an application on the same day, but the Environmental Health specialist has got to go out in the field.”
Rose said she and others, including the county manger and other development services-related department heads, including Perry Solice, the interim Environental Health supervisor taking over in the near future upon Underwood’s retirement, planned to continue to evaluate central permitting for Sampson County.
“We realize multiple visits will at times be necessary regardless of whether all department are located in the same building,” Rose said.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.