Winthrop Looks To Get Its Own Planning Department

At its most recent meeting on May 19, the Winthrop Town Council heard a presentation by Tufts University students on the benefits of creating a planning department for the Town of Winthrop.

Patrick Higgins, Alisha Patel, Ethan Pepin and Adrian Tanner presented a slideshow entitled Four Centuries Young: The Case for a Planning Department in Winthrop.

Planning was defined by the team as “the process of working with residents and elected officials to accomplish community goals.” The team conducted a literature review, interviewed planning professionals and analyzed budget statements to discover what benefits a professional planning department could bring to Winthrop.

The students explained that a town planner’s key role is to establish communication with foundations and to secure grant funding. They cited two projects—Win2030 and the $1.3 million sewer upgrade—that could be budgeted more effectively with the help of a planner.

The presentation also showed how a planning department could increase the Town’s professionalism—giving support to planning boards, provide consistency around the development process, and tailoring new developments to community values.

The report claimed that a town planner could help fight climate change by engaging in coastal partnerships, seeking out climate-specific grants, and altering the Master Plan to be more environmentally conscious.

The Tufts team identified potential obstacles for a newly hired town planner, especially if he or she is from out of town. It emphasized that a planner should get to know residents and to patronize small businesses in an effort to learn the community’s values and earn its trust.

The mission of the Winthrop Planning and Economic Management Department, as it would be called, would be to serve the town “by providing technical and professional support to the community as it determines and pursues its short- and long-term goals for community preservation, economic growth, and environmental protection.”

In order to determine the budget for the department, the researchers studied 16 municipal budgets and consulted online resources. They found that towns similar in size to Winthrop spent between $165,000 and $170,000 annually to fund the department. Department heads are paid approximately $80,000 per year, and a town planner is paid approximately $61,000.

When asked if it was necessary to have more than one planner, Higgins said “the more the better, so you can spread the work out.” He recommended one full-time planner and one part-time planner at a minimum.

Pepin highlighted the importance of hiring individuals with experience with both the Massachusetts and federal grant-writing processes, especially as the community reels from the economic fallout of COVID-19.

Councilors thanked the students for their hard work in assembling the presentation.

“I’m looking forward to acting on your recommendations,” said Councilor Tracy Honan.

“I think that adding a planner would bring much benefit to the town,” said Councilor Barbara Flockhart.

“We’re looking forward to finally having a planner in town to move us forward and do some things we’ve long wanted to have done,” said Councilor Rich Ferrino. “We’ll be looking for a planner soon so spruce up your résumé.”

One caller, Karen Chavis, said she was unsure how a planning department would be funded given the current budget restrictions.

“These people at Tufts did a wonderful job,” she said, “but I caution the council to think about other things before we [consider] a planner.” Town Manager Austin Faison said that his recent budget presentation already accounted for the planning department by dissolving existing positions.

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