Article

A New Twist on Planner Training

By TJ Dlubac, AICP and Nate Shull

Since the last recession, boards and councils have been hesitant to hire additional staff for fear of having to lay them off or not having enough work for a full-time employee, resulting in fewer resources to accomplish the work. Or, in a few cases, a board or council approves a planner position but with a budget sufficient to hire an entry-level planner, leaving a significant gap in knowledge on local planning matters. This is a growing trend which doesn’t show signs of slowing.

Many planning managers in smaller municipalities don’t have the time or experience to train new planners on the role and responsibilities of a practicing planner in Colorado. And with the many fires that need putting out, this leaves them in a bind to find the time to train the new planner while still meeting the demands of their own position. As a result, new planners may go months without receiving the on-the-job training needed for them to excel professionally and for an organization to grow efficiently.

If this sounds like your organization, you may find success using a third-party expert planner to train new planners. This approach allows for flexibility, cost efficiency, and targeted training.

This is a flexible approach allowing you and the new planner to:

  • Specify personalized learning objectives which can focus on your community’s work plan and development pressures;
  • Tailor a program to fit any budget;
  • Partner with subject matter experts for efficient delivery of service;
  • Use and understand codes, regulations, and standards of your community; and
  • Benefit from mentorship, assistance, and reviews of planning projects and work product.

Several municipalities across Colorado have engaged the services of third-party planning consultants to help train their Planners and found great success. The following case study will walk through a specific community’s process in acquiring planner training services, the approach used to develop a work plan, schedule, and budget, and identification of outcomes and key takeaways that can be used to assist you meet your community’s needs. 

Case Study: Town of Grand Lake, Colorado

Grand Lake, Colorado is a small mountain resort community located in northeast Grand County, serving as the Western Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. In the spring of 2017, Jim White, former Grand Lake Town Manager, hired Nate Shull as the town’s planner. As a department of one, the Grand Lake planner wears multiple hats, dealing with issues ranging from building inspection, to current development review, to capital improvement projects and long-range planning for the town. Jim, with many years of municipal management experience but no land use planning experience, could only provide so much guidance in planning-related matters for Nate. So, while Nate brought fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and a strong educational background in planning to the job, he was not well equipped with the proper resources and tools from the start, a situation which was only exacerbated by the demand of the busy oncoming summer months.

Recognizing the difficulty Nate was facing, Jim contacted several planning consulting firms to try and get him some professional assistance, ultimately landing on RG & Associates. Then senior planning project manager TJ Dlubac began working with Nate, a partnership that would end up flourishing and becoming the silver lining for Nate’s young professional growth.

From the outset, a rough budget was created to support the requested services. Prior to signing the contract for services, Nate and Jim drafted an outline of specific planning tasks and responsibilities that required further assistance, among which included clarifying content and layout of land development checklists, interpretation of regulatory processes in the town’s Municipal Code, internal review of site plans and plat documents, and capital improvement funding. Using this outline, a loose schedule was created to guide the four-hour per week sessions where TJ would go up to Grand Lake and meet with Nate in his office and go through the agenda items. Many of the agenda items were as simple as walking through the site plan process or talking through the components of an improvement agreement. Others were more practical such as reviewing a building permit or simple land use application together with all the tools and resources Nate had at town hall. Flexible time was built into these agendas to allow Nate to bring up any specific question(s) he had received and was currently working through.

In addition to the weekly one-on-one work sessions, there was also the ability for Nate to call TJ to provide technical assistance or answer questions he wanted clarification before responding to a resident or developer request.

Training Program:

The formal training program began in September 2017 and went through January of 2018. Following these set weekly sessions, Jim, Nate, and TJ met to discuss how the sessions had worked and identify a plan moving forward. Out of this debrief, it was agreed that Nate had made significant progress understanding the town codes, regulations, and policies and the weekly one-on-one sessions were no longer needed. However, a reduced budget was identified to allow Nate to still call TJ as needed as questions, applications, and situations came up to provide Nate with the support and resources to excel in his position at the town.

Program Costs:

Over this period of time, the cost for these services from $1,525 to $1,070 per month. For the five-month period, the total cost to the Town was $6,655 averaging approximately $1,330 per month. The table to the right provides the actual costs per month. 

 

COST PER MONTH
MONTH COST TO GL
September 2017 $1,070
October 2017 $1,350
November 2017 $1,525
December 2017 $1,450
January 2017 $1,260
TOTAL $6,655
Average/Month $1,331

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Key Takeaways:Over this period of time, the cost for these services from $1,525 to $1,070 per month. For the five-month period, the total cost to the Town was $6,655 averaging approximately $1,330 per month. The table to the right provides the actual costs per month.

Reflecting on this five-month program, there were many takeaways and lessons learned. A few of the most impactful were:

  • The relationships built and formed particularly between TJ and Nate, but also for the Town and consultant, residents and the consultant, and town staff and residents, to name a few.
  • The practical nature of this effort was a great way to allocate resources efficiently and effectively while not hindering staff productivity. Also, as development applications came in, Nate was able to work through actual applications with another planner.
  • The support network and structure. Nate no longer felt like he was on an island and having to work through all situations on his own. There are at least a few other planners he can call to bounce ideas against and solicit input.
  • Efficient use of public funds. The value (cost to knowledge learned) of this program was a very effective way to use limited resources.
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