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Buffalo County eyes zoning turnover problem (07/28/2014)
By Chris Rogers
After most of its zoning staff resigned this month, Buffalo County will consider suspending all conditional use permit (CUP) applications due to a lack of staff; however, there is some question as to whether doing so is legal. This month both of Buffalo County's zoning technicians resigned within two weeks of one another, leaving department head and Interim County Administrative Coordinator Julie Lindstrom alone in the zoning office. At its Monday meeting, the County Board is expected to vote on the proposal to halt CUPs and another proposals from the Land Resources Committee to overhaul staffing in the office, including an increase in wages and total staff.

County officials said that former zoning technicians Ben Bublitz, who left his position with the county on July 11, and Sarah Droher, who finished her last day of work on Friday, did not state specific reasons for leaving. The technicians could not be reached for comment, but Lindstrom said that Bublitz was relocating to another part of the state and that Droher took a job in St. Croix County. Their departures mark the fifth and sixth resignations from the office since 2012.

"I think it's primarily a matter of salary," said County Board Chair Douglas Kane. He said that the salary for Buffalo County's technicians was less than compensation offered for similar positions in all of the nearby counties. When asked if workload had also contributed to turnover in the department, Kane acknowledged that it was probably a factor given the number of conditional use permit applications for frac sand facilities within the last few years.

The proposal to reorganize the zoning office states that it "experienced a heavier workload due to increased staff responsibility to process permit application requests [and] due to the nonmetallic mining program."

"We don't pay enough," County Board member and Land Resources Committee member Nettie Rosenow stated flatly when asked why the department had trouble retaining staff. She added that because of the low salary, many of the new hires are fresh out of college and do not always have the certifications when they begin. They get those certificates on the job and then are qualified for better paying posts, she explained. Another reason may be a problem with picking new hires that will enjoy living in Buffalo County for the longer term, she added.

Rosenow was earnestly disheartened by Droher's departure. "She was very good" and earned the respect of other counties' department heads.

The "very low" salary is certainly part of the reason the department has had trouble retaining employees; however, that is not always the reason employees move on, Lindstrom said. Former technician Peter Stoltman resigned and moved to Texas because "his wife didn't like living in Wisconsin," she explained. "I don't know if it had anything to do with the nature of the job." She added that preparing, staffing, and filing minutes from eight-hour-long public hearings on mining applications "is a huge workload." Remaining calm and completely unbiased during the impassioned process "is a very stressful job," she added. Droher and Bublitz were good at it, she added. Keeping up with other permits while handling complex mining applications is another one of the offices' challenges, she said.

Board vote

would stop CUPs?

On Monday, the County Board will be asked to vote on a resolution that would direct county staff to stop accepting CUP applications. Last month, the Land Resources Committee recommended the proposal, stating that the recent resignations left the zoning office without the staff needed to process applications.

Lindstrom drafted the resolution at the direction of the committee, but said she was advised by the county's legal counsel that doing so was not a legal option. Under the county zoning ordinance, once a CUP application is complete, the county has 60 days to hold a hearing. Nevertheless, the resolution will come before the board for consideration.

When asked what the zoning department would do in the meantime, Lindstrom said, "We will do what we can do with what we have to work with." She added, "We have to take the applications and process them." She said the department might consider hiring a contractor to handle sanitary permits, which require a certified technician. The county will handle other permits as best as it can, she said, adding that she hoped a new zoning technician could be hired by the end of August. The position has already been advertised.

Raises, added staff for zoning, conservation

Another proposal by the Land Resources Committee would split the conservation office and zoning office into separate departments with separate department heads. Currently, both offices are part of the land resources department. Under the current staffing arrangement, one land resources director oversees two conservation technicians and two zoning technicians. Under the proposal the county would employ a zoning administrator, one zoning technician, and one administrative assistant in the zoning office. A conservationist would oversee two conservation technicians.

The proposal would also increase the wages for the zoning technician position from $16.89 per hour to between $18.19 and $23.39 per hour, and establish wages for the new positions. The new zoning administrator position would receive a significantly higher wage than the zoning technician position it is replacing: between $21.27 and $27.35 per hour. The conservationist would be paid similarly: between $21.15 to $27.19 per hour. The new administrative assistant would earn an hourly rate between $15.93 and $19.83. Overall, the proposal would increase staffing levels by one position and generally increase wages.

Rosenow said that by having a more experienced zoning administrator, as opposed to two technicians, the more experienced administrator could serve as a mentor to the technician. "We're hoping with an actual zoning administrator who knows all the rules and could help someone else learn all the rules, that would be very stabilizing," she said.

Rosenow, Kane, and Lindstrom all said that one of the advantages of the proposal will be that conservation staff will be able to focus more on conservation programs. Previously, the workload in the zoning office required conservation technicians to aid with zoning duties.

Will the proposal solve turnover and workload issues in the department? County Board members were cautiously hopeful. "We'll see what direction the board wants to go in; obviously the thinking is that this would be a step forward," Kane said. "We do need to do something with the salary schedules and we do need to do something with the workloads." He added, "If we're going to have a zoning department we're going to have to keep people."

"We're doing what we can," Rosenow said of the zoning office turnover. "It doesn't happen overnight in government. You can't wave your wand and say, 'Okay we have a zoning administrator now.'"

As for funding the proposal, Rosenow commented, "The money has to come from somewhere which is a huge problem." Kane agreed, "We're going to have to figure out where the funding comes from." County Board member Jason Mork does not serve on the Land Resources Committee and was less familiar with the proposal, but commented generally that "the County Board wants to keep people,

they don't want to lose people." However, Mork noted, the county's financial flexibility is limited by state policies from unfunded mandates to limits on levy increases. "Buffalo County is actually one of the counties that was hurt [by state laws limiting levy increases] because we were very frugal and we didn't have much for savings," he explained.

Board expected to name new coordinator

Also at its Monday meeting, the County Board is expected to formally approve Sonya Hansen as the County Administrative Coordinator. Hansen has worked in a number of county departments and currently serves as the child support program director. With the appointment of a full-time coordinator, Kane said that he would be less involved in day-to-day operations at the county, such as providing direction to county employees who have questions.

The County Board will meet on Monday, July 28, at 7 p.m. on the third floor of the courthouse in Alma, Wis. 


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