Layoffs announced for county planning department

Jackson County's planning and building staff received bad news Wednesday, when they learned of another round of layoffs.

The entire department's operating hours will shrink by almost one day a week as construction slows and permit requests dry up. Besides laying off the equivalent of five full-time employees and leaving other vacant positions unfilled, the department will cut working hours for the remaining staff to 32 per week for about six months.

Septic permit requests and inspections will be turned over to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for processing.

Workers received the 30-day layoff notice Wednesday.

"It's heartbreaking to have to lay people off prior to the Christmas season," County Commissioner C.W. Smith said.

He noted the county's Development Services Department has seen revenues continue to decline over the past year. The department is supposed to be funded by fees collected through the building permit and planning process.

Last fiscal year, the department received an infusion of $500,000 in additional funds from the county to maintain staffing levels, but that amount is being increased to $1 million to maintain state-required staffing levels for planning and building services.

Last spring, the department cut its staff from the equivalent of 56.8 full-time workers to 43.5. The latest layoffs, along with vacancies that were left unfilled, will reduce staffing to 29. However, because the department is going to 32-hour work weeks for the remainder of the year, the equivalent number of full-time positions is actually fewer than 25.

"It's more than a 50-percent reduction in staff," said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Jordan said the department will be open the equivalent of 3.75 days a week compared to the present 4.5, but the exact hours of operation are still being worked out.

Inspections also will be delayed by one to two days because of the cutbacks, but response times still will meet state mandates, said Jordan.

He said it is still too early to say where county residents will have to go to get permits and arrange inspections for septic systems from DEQ.

Permits were down 40 percent in November compared to the same month in 2007. In the first quarter of 2008, permits were down 30 percent compared to the first quarter of 2007, he said.

Jordan said the county didn't want to make any steeper cuts in planning and building staff, just in case the economy improves suddenly.

Other departments that depend on fees, such as the Jackson County Clerk's Office, are being reviewed for possible staff reductions in the future.

To add to the misery, a shortfall in the state budget could affect the county's community justice programs and its health and human services.

"It's just the beginning of reductions we will be making across all county services," he said. "I'm certainly not excited about what we've got to do."

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said the county tried to keep as many employees as possible in building and planning and attempted to deal with the situation through attrition.

"It's absolutely horrible," he said. "I felt terrible about it."

With income drying up, he said there just wasn't enough work for all the planning and building staff, so some layoffs were necessary.

"There was no other way to do it," he said.

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