High turnover plagues planners

April 24, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

If there's a revolving door at Williston Town Hall, it spins in the planning and zoning office.

Eight employees have resigned over the past four years, including two that recently gave their notices. Carrie Deegan, the environmental planner, and D.K. Johnston, the zoning administrator, will step down in coming weeks.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the turnover "creates a problem but is not the symptom of a problem." He explained that when employees leave it can disrupt the continuity of ongoing projects and cause gaps in staffing.

But the turnover doesn't mean the planning office is a bad place to work, McGuire said. He noted that the office is admired throughout the state for its progressive planning policies and has won awards for its efforts.

He also cited the widely varying reasons employees have left — one retired, another left because the office was restructured, yet another resigned because he found a job with better pay and more responsibilities — as evidence that there is no pattern that points to a problem.

Some past planning employees, however, have complained that staffing was inadequate in a town that has seen more than its share of development over the past few years. Lara Dumond, who resigned her position as planning assistant in 2005, told the Observer at the time that a lack of "warm bodies" and the "overwhelming number" of applications for new projects limited staff's ability to process and enforce permits.

Job responsibilities may be reshuffled to attract and keep people who will fill the openings, town officials said. They are willing to tailor the positions to fit the qualifications and career goals of new hires.

The position Johnston held will now be called development review planner. It will carry most of Johnston's duties, but Town Planner Lee Nellis will at least for the time being continue as acting zoning administrator. The other position will still be called environmental planner.

The town received about 35 applications for each position, according to Nellis. A total of five finalists have been selected for a second round of interviews. Nellis said he hopes to hire the new employees by May 1.

The new staffers will join an office that has only four employees. Not one person remains among those working there in the beginning of 2004.

As a whole, the town's municipal government has a low turnover rate. Only the Williston Police Department has seen sizeable numbers of people leave in recent years.

In fact, several municipal town employees have logged a decade or more of service. A few, such as Public Works Director Neil Boyden, have worked for Williston for more than 20 years.

Attracting and keeping employees in the planning office is related to a statewide issue: low pay and a high cost of living compared to other parts of the country, Nellis said. That limits the number of people who will apply for and stay in some positions.

"People who like Carrie's job are willing to hang around Vermont for its quality of life," Nellis said. "That's not true of the potential applicants for other jobs."

The national average for entry-level pay among those with graduate degrees working in the planning profession is $51,000, Nellis said. The town is offering between $32,968 and $47,403 for each of the two planning office openings.

"Our salaries are lower, so there are less potential applicants," Nellis said.