For Ravalli County’s chronically understaffed planning department, the glory days came and went last spring. Following the two-month period of April and May, the old adage “you get what you pay for” rang especially true.
It was last spring when the department’s two full-time planners, both new hires, launched an ambitious program that, for once, was not a reaction to crisis.
The two planners, under the direction of boss Jake Kammerer, wrote ordinances that: put the kibosh on bigger-than-life billboards within weeks after one behemoth materialized on Highway 93 near Stevensville; reined in cellular phone towers as soon as it became apparent that, to the wireless industry, the Bitterroot Valley was a wide-open, lawless frontier; and re-wrote the subdivision regulations, putting road paving responsibility on the shoulders of the land developers.
As far as planning was concerned, these were Ravalli County’s salad days. Planning was on a roll.
Then both planners quit.
Though both had personal reasons for leaving, salary was a factor, Kammerer believes.
In the state’s fastest growing county, the beginning salary for an experienced senior planner is a paltry $27,500—this in a county where the average price of a home is about $120,000.
Since June, the planning office has operated with two planning “technicians,” two secretaries, one part-time Geographic Information Systems cartographer and Kammerer.
So what happened to the planning department?
“Exactly,” says Kammerer. “What did happen to the planning department?” The short answer: It’s the salary, stupid. At $27,500, the county’s help wanted ads resulted in zero responses. So the county upped the ante to $34,500. That got two responses, one from an architect and another from a career Navy man, retired. “However, no planners.”
Two other would-be planners have emerged since the ad went out: the first, a Minnesota woman with two years planning experience, and the second, a retired 20-year planning veteran whose wife won’t let him return to full-time employment.
Though the salary isn’t exactly reeling them in, Kammerer isn’t too concerned that, for now anyway, he is the Ravalli County planning department. For one thing, he says, the summer’s wildfires put a damper on subdivision growth. Secondly, there appears to be “something going on with the [national] economy” that he can’t quite put his finger on. If anything is “going on with the economy,” Montanans, of course, would be the last to know. But Kammerer speculates that the dot.com bubble may be bursting, prompting nervous investors to stay put and rethink their building schemes.
The other good news, Kammerer adds, is that no one has sued the county lately over rejected subdivision applications. And in Ravalli County that represents progress.