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City ready to take on planning duties

September 20, 2018
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Jerry Williams

Jerry Williams said it was worth the seven-year wait.

“Sometimes we wondered whether it would happen. Now it’s happening,” the Rochester resident said Monday night shortly after the Rochester City Council approved the creation of a new Community Development Department.

Williams led a task force created in 2011 with the goal of improving the city’s development and permitting process.

The department created Monday will eventually take over some planning duties of the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department, which has been a joint city-county operation for more than four decades.

Rochester City Administrator Steve Rymer said the new department isn’t a complete split from the county. Rather, it creates a hybrid model that puts the city in charge of current planning efforts, while working with the county on long-range planning and other roles currently handled in the combined department.

He said the goal is to create a department that is customer and community oriented, while streamlining efforts as city departments work together.

With the pending change, Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said the county’s commitment to the effort remains.

“We’ll continue to work in good partnership,” she told the council before it made its decision.

Council Member Mark Hickey was the only dissenting vote Monday, saying he had concerns, despite liking the objectives in the proposal.

“I just have concerns about the costs and how we are going to sustain it,” he said, pointing to estimates the city would need approximately $250,000 in tax revenue or increased development fees after the first year.

He noted developers have voiced concerns about local fees in the past.

“At this point, there are just too many unanswered questions,” he said.

Council Member Mark Bilderback also cited some past concerns about splitting duties from the county but said he felt assured the city and county would continue to work together.

“I’m willing to give it an effort and give it a try,” he said.

The proposal, which will have the city looking for a department director almost immediately, was modified after concerns were voiced about planned funding for 2019.

The initial plan called for using $1 million from excess sales tax reserves, but council members noted some state lawmakers voiced opposition to the proposal. Instead, Rymer suggested using the sales tax funds for capital improvements and shifting capital improvement funds for use in creating the new department.

After the first year, the city’s plan calls for extending the city’s levy for the Downtown Abatement District, which is set to expire next year. Doing so would provide $1 million without increasing the city’s property tax. Additional funding will be obtained by keeping development fees that are currently sent to the county.

Rymer said more details will emerge as the city works to include the new department into its budget plan.

By bringing planning efforts into city control, Council Member Nick Campion noted it will hold the council and city staff more accountable for the process, hopefully making it better for developers and the community.

“There’s no confusion about who has to deliver,” he said.

Williams said much of what he heard in the council’s discussion Monday is similar to a pair of proposals a community task force made in the past.

“This action they took tonight mirrors a lot of things we included in those two reports,” he said, echoing his excitement for seeing the city take a new approach to planning.

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