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Fire Recovery: Will Santa Cruz County Undo its Planning Staff Furlough?

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” plans examiner says

A wood stove and chimney collapsed and surrounding woodlands were scorched at this Boulder Creek home during the CZU Lightning Complex fire. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Last month, as the county prepared to approve a contract with an independent engineering firm, one Planning Department employee stepped forward at public comment with a reminder and a pointed critique. 

The Planning Department’s top two officials were pitching a contract with Pleasanton-based consulting company 4Leaf, Inc. to set up and manage a Recovery Permit Center in the county building. That agreement is the centerpiece of a streamlining process in the aftermath of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which destroyed more than 900 homes. 

However, county Plans Examiner Jim Heaney spoke up to say that, while he and his colleagues had no problem with the contract itself, they felt it would be a good time for the county to reverse its furloughs. At the Nov. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, he called the moment an “all-hands-on-deck situation” for the department’s employees.

“Right now, they’re expected to work 92% of their normal workload because that’s how their pay has been affected,” said Heaney, who’s also a volunteer union rep for the SEIU, representing his fellow planning staffers. “You will hear from personnel, for example, that they don’t want to take us off of furlough, because there’s cost savings involved in our furlough. Of course, there’s cost savings. When $295 each pay period is not in my paycheck, that’s a cost savings.”

At the Nov. 17 meeting, which was the board’s most recent, the board unanimously approved the plan to hire 4Leaf. And in a motion from Supervisor John Leopold, the board also agreed to look at county planners’ staffing hours during the mid-year budget review, which county spokesperson Jason Hoppin says is scheduled for the second half of January. 

Heaney wishes the county would take action sooner. “It’s just challenging,” he tells GT, of the road ahead. “There’s a lot of work to do, and there’s limited time to do it.

The county board approved widespread furloughs over the summer because of the revenue hit levied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. In order to fund the 4Leaf contract, the county has hiked up some of its permitting fees. After the fire, there were some calls to lower or eliminate fees altogether, but county leaders feared that, without revenue, they would only slow down the rebuilding process—something the board wants to avoid. It’s unclear just how much lasting impact the fires will have on the county’s crises of housing and homelessness.

County Supervisor Bruce McPherson hopes the 4Leaf experience will impart lessons for permitting and streamlining improvements that could reduce barriers to new home construction countywide. 

However, given the budgetary constraints and the time it will take for 4Leaf to start making changes, he thinks that even January may be too soon to start taking county employees—including ones from the planning department—off furlough.

“We need a little more time to see how the operation goes and what it does before we make a change in that respect,” says McPherson, who represents the San Lorenzo Valley, an area that suffered losses in the recent fire. “I’d feel more comfortable with that.”

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