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More work means need for more staff for Willmar Planning and Development

In the coming months, the city of Willmar has plans to add a rental housing inspector to its Planning and Development Department. The new position will focus on rental housing inspection, along with code enforcement, throughout the city. The expansion of staff is just one way new director Justice Walker hopes to update how the department operates.

Preserve on 24th apartment construction Jan. 11, 2022
Construction on the Preserve on 24th apartment complex, located at 24th Avenue Southeast and 5th Street Southeast in Willmar continues on Jan. 11, 2022, despite the cold and snow. This is just one of several multi-family housing projects happening in Willmar and one of the main reasons why the city of Willmar plans to hire a rental housing inspector this spring.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The growth in Willmar, both in terms of residential and commercial construction, has created a lot of work for the city's planning and development department. While the work has increased, staffing has remained static for quite some time, leaving a limited number of employees facing too many responsibilities to complete.

"It has been very clear to me the development department is severely stretched thin," said Justice Walker, Willmar Planning and Development director, at the Jan. 3 Willmar City Council meeting.

Justice Walker Willmar Planning and Development
Justice Walker

Walker, who was hired in late 2021, said a recent inspection of a trailer park in Willmar tied up the city's two building inspection staff members for nearly two days.

"That means plans aren't getting reviewed, which we have a backlog on. There is still a backlog on rental housing and we haven't brought up zoning enforcement," Walker said.

The council agrees with that assessment of the department, and is set to rectify it.

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"I think we are behind," said Councilor Audrey Nelsen. "We are in a crisis mode right now."

The city did bring on an additional city planner last year, bringing the total up to two. Willard Huyck, who also serves as the Willmar Main Street coordinator, focuses on downtown Willmar, while Kayode Adiatu concentrates on the rest of the city.

However, even more help is required. First up will be hiring a city building inspector. Longtime building official Tom Rosemeier retired at the end of the year and Jacen Zwagerman was promoted to fill the vacancy of building official, leaving the city's lone building inspector position open.

Close up of Preserve on 24th apartment complex construction Jan. 11, 2022
The first floor of Preserve on 24th in Willmar is starting to take shape, pictured on Jan. 11, 2022. The new rental housing inspector, when hired by the city, will be responsible for conducting inspections of these facilities and other rental housing properties across the city. They'll also focus on code enforcement, such as making sure lawns are mowed and sidewalks shoveled.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

After the new inspector is in place and able to work independently, probably by spring, Walker wants to hire for a new position, a rental housing inspector. This person will not only be responsible for inspections of rental housing in the city, but will also be the main point person for code enforcement, such as making sure sidewalks are shoveled and garbage isn't littering front yards.

"It would allow those two things to be addressed," Walker said.

The council unanimously approved the job description for the new position and gave LuAnn Sietsema, human resources director, approval to recruit for the position when the time comes.

"I do think this is a quality of life issue," said Councilor Julie Asmus.

While rental housing inspections are important, especially as the city continues to add more units with the construction of several new apartment complexes , it is the code enforcement that generated the most council comments.

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"I am totally in favor of whatever we can do to clean up the city," Asmus said.

Currently, when there is a possible code violation, the city will look into it if a complaint is made. The city has an online complaint form citizens can fill out.

With the new inspector, Walker wants to change how the city approaches enforcement. He wants to be more proactive and have staff tour the city to find violations instead of waiting for a resident to bring them up.

There is also a plan to go through the city codes to see if they need to be amended so they are better understood.

"Make them more black and white, so they can be enforced," Walker said. "We also want to be fair with people."

Enforcement won't all be about consequences either, but a chance for city staff to talk with residents to see how they can work together to solve violations.

"We need to draw a line on what will and will not be tolerated, and how we can be innovative to clean up these properties that need to be cleaned up," Walker said.

Council members shared their approval of Walker's plans, both in regard to staffing and enforcement, saying they are long overdue.

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While there most likely will be growing pains as both staff and residents get used to the new way of doing things, the feeling seems to be it will be a positive change for Willmar.

"You put all of it together, it is a huge deal and a massive undertaking," said Councilor Andrew Plowman.

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