The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners approved a new contract Thursday night with Benchmark Planning, which will continue a relationship that began in November 2011 when city officials decided to privatize planning department functions.
This updated agreement will include increased enforcement of housing codes, mirroring a concern by commissioners in recent years to address rundown properties in Mount Airy.
“We really see a need to increase our team effort for this,” Richard Smith, a Benchmark official, said of that issue Thursday night before the city board gave its unanimous approval to the contract. Under it, the firm will be paid $165,000 annually.
Smith said that will include devoting more personnel to “canvassing the city and basically going out and looking for any code enforcement violations.” This expansion of code enforcement efforts will include a minimum of one day per month conducting a field review for violations.
City Manager Barbara Jones explained that this means a more proactive approach toward problem properties, rather than waiting on citizens to file complaints.
Jones began negotiating the new contract earlier this year for Benchmark to continue providing planning and enforcement services, after the commissioners agreed to a request by Smith to pursue a multi-year arrangement with the municipality during a meeting in April. Board members said then they were pleased with the services provided by the Kannapolis-based firm.
The contract approved Thursday night runs for three years.
The city’s move toward privatization in 2011 corresponded with the retirement of Planning Director Jeff Coutu.
Its agreement with Benchmark allows “experienced professionals” to provide various planning-related services to the municipality five days per week, according to a resolution the board approved Thursday night authorizing the contract.
In addition to housing codes enforcement, Benchmark’s services to the city encompass land-use planning, the preparation of ordinances for new developments, master planning, urban design, outsourced local government staffing, downtown revitalization, planning and zoning administration and more.
The new contract goes into effect next Jan. 1.
It does reflect some concessions on the part of Benchmark, according to Thursday’s night’s discussion. An original proposal called for the contract to include a yearly cost-of-living allowance equivalent to what city employees receive, not to exceed 5 percent, but that was dropped from the final document.
The contract cost for the second half of the city’s fiscal year, from July 1 to Dec. 31, also will be $141,750 on an annual pro-rated basis rather than the $165,000 rate approved for the new deal.
Jones said that, and the dropping of the cost-of-living allowance, was achieved during the negotiating process in order to lessen the city’s expense to a degree.
Benchmark previously has been paid $135,000 per year.
In 2012, Mount Airy’s contract with Benchmark was $72,000, which covered maintaining a presence five days a week in the city planning offices in the capacity of either master planner, urban planner, senior planner, GIS coordinator and code enforcement officer, according to information provided by Jones.
Then in 2013, Benchmark employed someone to be in the planning office five days per week along with the previous makeup of employees. That person was assigned to Mount Airy each weekday for front-line coverage related to answering telephones, permits, research and other tasks.
In 2014, during a board work session, the commissioners made a decision to increase code enforcement, adding another day of coverage for Steve May, who handles that responsibility.
The previous annual contract amounting to $135,000 incorporated a professional planner three days a week, along with other related services including code enforcement two days a week and access to GIS, other planners and Benchmark’s team of professionals.
In 2014, the commissioners also moved forward with a comprehensive plan for the municipality which has been incorporated into the duties of the Benchmark staff as well as working with a new city redevelopment commission.
The last time an in-depth evaluation of the relationship with Benchmark was done, it revealed a savings to the city, Jones has said.
“Planning Director Andy Goodall and other members of the team have worked hard and provided services to the city at a high level of efficiency,” she added in assessing the relationship.
“We feel that this arrangement will allow many of our ongoing projects to move along smoothly and provide continuity.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.