Plan to merge city, county services is sound approach

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Walla Walla urban area would seem an excellent fit to merge city and county development services.

The proposal to merge the development departments (as in land-use planning) of the city and county makes sense, at least in theory.

However, consolidating the functions of government between two jurisdictions can be as tricky as it is complex. In addition, the merging of departments will mean jobs are going to be eliminated and people will be laid off, which is a devastating blow to the employees and their families.

Walla Walla City Council members and county commissioners are wisely looking at all sides of this plan before giving final approval.

It seems the two local governments are on the right track. The lousy economic conditions have resulted in less tax and fee revenue for both governments. As a result, expenses have to be reduced. A $1.3 million revenue shortfall in 2011 has been projected for the city's budget. That kind of cut requires serious action.

The Walla Walla urban area would seem an excellent fit to merge city and county services since the unincorporated areas just outside the city limits are indistinguishable from the city. The city-county boundary weaves in and out of neighborhoods in some places.

This does create confusion for folks seeking building permits and other development services as they aren't sure where to go. A merger would make it clear.

In addition, those working at the two departments deal with many of the same issues. Bringing the departments together should eliminate duplication.

"We've heard many of the same concerns the city has," county Commissioner Gregg Loney said. "... Government has always been accused of not being user-friendly. To have a one-stop shop would be, as we view it, very beneficial to people."

The plan is to set up a separate board outside of city and county government to oversee the new operation with one county commissioner, one council member and one citizen. A great many details need to be worked out from there.

One thing that is certain is that layoffs are going to occur. That, frankly, is where savings can be found to balance the budgets of the city and county. And since work will be consolidated the current number of employees will not be needed. Although, if overhead costs are reduced, it could mean fewer layoffs.

City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the city is facing layoffs whether the city-county merger moves forward or not. Given that, it just makes sense to streamline operations and give taxpayers more for their money.

Nevertheless, the layoffs are troubling because they do turn lives upside down. In addition, the loss of jobs hurts the community's economy as it means less wages to spend. These types of decisions must always be a last resort.

But since deep cuts have to be made, the proposal to merge city and county development services should be pursued.

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