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Douglas County works on future

Douglas County doesn't have a long-range plan.

But, it's working on it.

Sitting in on a regular planning meeting of county department heads last Wednesday, county commissioners began tinkering with the idea of developing a new long-range plan.

The board has already created a committee to look into whether a new plan is needed, and recently it sent out surveys asking county departments to estimate how much staff and square-footage they will need for operations over the next five to 10 years.

Also known as a long-term facilities study, a long-range plan generally refers to a document that city or county governments use as a guide to determine future space needs based on projected growth in programs and services.

It's different than the more commonly known comprehensive plan, which generally outlines long-term land use and overall development in a community.

The county is required by law to have and maintain a comprehensive plan (it must be updated at least once every 10 years). It doesn't have to have a long-range plan.

Douglas County used to have such a blueprint that helped coordinate most of its building projects throughout the 1990s, but that plan expired in 2001.

It's time for a new one, according to some county officials.

"I have raised the subject to I believe every county board since then that we don't have a long-range plan," said Tom Reddick, Douglas County auditor/treasurer. "With what we're doing now, I don't think we're solving any long-range problems for the county."

It's hard for local governments to predict what will happen 10 to 20 years down the road, Reddick admitted, especially when so many of their public-service responsibilities change along with the whims of state legislators.

But, planning is important, he said, and it works.

"It's amazing how close we were on staffing size and programs and things," Reddick said about the county's last long-range plan, which was put together by an outside consultant.

Although he wasn't personally part of implementing the county's last long-range plan, Public Works Director Dave Robley, who started in 1995, said he saw first-hand how well that program addressed space needs and coordinated multiple building projects during the '90s.

"I think you have to have a plan, otherwise you just kind of flounder around," Robley said. "I haven't been too involved with facilities planning in my career, [but] with road construction it's continuous."

In the years since the last plan expired, Reddick said Douglas County has struggled at times to identify or anticipate all of its building needs, and how to address them.

"This whole jail thing would've went so much more smoothly if we had pre-planned the whole thing," he said, "and come to an agreement before on what we wanted to do.

"But that's water under the bridge."

Robley said that if Douglas County were to embark on a new long-range plan, one of his goals would be to develop a comprehensive approach for determining future use of the site of the county's new public works building.

The building itself is nearly complete, he said, but there is still a lot of land around it yet to be used.

Bill Schalow, county coordinator, said the county has operated for the last nine years - his entire tenure - without a long-range plan, so it's hard for him to say whether or not a lack of one has hindered county officials.

"I think it's important to have one and it should be updated," Schalow said. "But we have been working so long without having seen [a long-range plan].

"But, it would only help."

Douglas County isn't alone in lacking an up-to-date long-range plan. Neither neighboring Todd County nor nearby Morrison County currently have such a plan in place, although Todd County Administrator Nate Burquett said officials there are exploring the possibility of commissioning a new facility needs assessment.

Douglas County Board Chair Bev Bales said while she thinks it's important for the county to try and plan for the future, it can be tough to try and accurately predict what exactly the county's needs will be years from now, and it's even tougher given the constantly changing mandates from the state and federal governments.

"It's also important to have flexibility because you don't know what's going to happen," Bales said. "Things change. Needs change."

Mike Woods, Douglas County's social services director, said with so many immediate questions surrounding funding for his department, given the state's looming potential $7 billion deficit, it's almost impossible for him to worry about long-term planning these days.

"Right now," he said, "I'm just thinking about what's going to happen in July."