CHAPEL HILL — The community’s desire for detailed talks about growth comes at a cost, town officials say.
In less than a year, a consultant’s bill for one of the town’s smaller planning areas has grown to nearly 2.5 times the original $92,855 contract fee, Town Manager Roger Stancil told the Town Council in a recent email.
Central West, one of six small areas identified by the town’s 2020 Plan for possible development or redevelopment, surrounds the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive. The council appointed a 17-member Steering Committee of residents, advisory board members and business representatives in December to work with the consultant and gave the group nearly a year to meet with the community.
According to a town calendar, the committee was scheduled to meet nearly 35 times before a possible council vote in November, plus walking tours and community workshops. The town will hold a public hearing on the committee’s draft report in October.
Consultant Rhodeside & Harwell’s contract ran out in February. It called for four committee meetings and one community workshop, but the work grew to 16 committee meetings and three workshops, Stancil said. The bill is now $230,000, and while there is money in the town’s planning budget, this will leave less to pay for planning in other areas, he said.
Consultants to the town’s 2020 growth plan are paid from a pool of money, said town Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer. The town had $126,000 in last year’s budget and spent $115,286. The budget for July 2013 to June 2014 is $250,000, he said.
Stancil and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the town is learning a lesson in how to balance in-depth public dialogue with the expense of staff time and tax dollars.
“We learned what people are going to want to see and that we’re going to have to plan for it, and it’s going to be expensive,” Kleinschmidt said.
Council member Gene Pease said he was shocked to hear about the higher bill, in an Aug. 28 email to Stancil.
“Although I haven’t directly participated in the meetings, I have gotten quite a bit of feedback from some of the committee members and would be interested in a report this fall of lessons learned and how we can do better,” Pease wrote.
Specifically, the town manager should explain how much time was wasted organizing the work, if some committee members are obstructing the process and how to manage them more effectively, and the number and duration of meetings that were held, Pease wrote.
He did not return calls seek additional comment.
Council member Ed Harrison said the cost overrun was a mistake that wasn’t caught.
“This is a case where the consultants should not have been the facilitators for their own products,” he said in response to a recent campaign forum question.
Stancil said town staff shops for consultants who can guide the conversation instead of thinking they have all the answers. He lets them know the town’s residents are knowledgeable, and may have even written the book they’re using, he said. Not everyone gets it, he said.
“You can succeed here if you don’t walk in the room and think you’re the smartest person in the room,” he said.
The town also hired UNC School of Government staff and students on occasion, he said. A list of paid invoices that Pennroyer provided last week shows the school was paid roughly $70,000 in the last 20 months for planning and consulting work.
Stancil said the benefit of outside consultants is that they share the best ideas about growth from around the country. It can keep the town from a rut, but it doesn’t mean the town should become a cookie-cutter community, he said.
Central West meetings have been tense at times. Some residents have said town staff and the consultant are driving the process to a predetermined result and ignoring the neighbors.
In May, a group asked to hire a professional facilitator to lead the work, but the steering committee voted to continue with Rhodeside. The residents asked again for a neutral facilitator at the council’s June 24 meeting but were refused. The committee voted a second time in July but did not get the required two-thirds majority.
Kleinschmidt said the town has since asked Loryn Clark, a trained facilitator and Planning Department staff member, to help lead the meetings.