CANYON CITY - Grant County Planning Director Hilary McNary lives in Roseburg. She's doing the job by computer, fax, phone and the internet, with video conferencing coming soon.

She will travel here at her expense for planning commission meetings and any necessary public hearings.

The planning department at the courthouse is staffed by planning secretary Athena Moline, who handles mostly building permits and the like. She's being trained to do more. She's in the office from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

McNary is available for customer service from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The rest of her 30 hours a week is spent doing required paperwork and returning calls. Customers don't need to make a long-distance call. They can call the county office and then McNary will be alerted to return the call.

The situation is either a step forward in a wired world or a slap in the face to county taxpayers, depending on your point of view. Either way, it starts under a 90-day trial period. If it doesn't work, and it may not, the county will go the more traditional route of hiring someone inside the county.

On one side, it's nothing new. Video conferencing, the internet and e-mail are a part of many people's jobs.

On the other side, it hurts people who live here looking for a job in a depressed economy.

Most of the dozen or so people the Eagle talked to in an informal survey supported the arrangement, citing McNary's experience and knowledge, and they said that telecommuting is likely the wave of the future. A desire to work at home, too, was often part of the response.

Letters of support from real estate agents and surveyors are on file at the courthouse. One of the potential downsides, from a surveyor's perspective, is that reviewing, approving and signing land partition and subdivision platts could be a concern.

The county is addressing that concern (it's possible the internet will help), but in the meantime, McNary will travel to the county whenever it's deemed necessary.

One argument against hiring a county outsider was that the salary, about $32,000, which will go up in six months, is leaving the county.

"It's a win-win, despite a few dollars leaving the county," said County Assessor Lane Burton.

Moline earns $13.81 an hour. Both she and McNary get county benefits. The 2005-06 county budget includes funding for a full-time planning director, and a 20-hour planning secretary; so the county should see a little savings from what it budgeted for. The 2006-07 budget proposes 30 hours a week for each job.

There was concern about the 90-day trial period. Some thought it was too short because much of the planning department's work is seasonal. As the county moves into the spring and summer, when most building is done, the situation will get more of a test.

Hiring McNary was a good move not only because she did an excellent job as planning director, but also because the county has one of the most technologically advanced computer systems in Eastern Oregon, and linking with McNary would make use of the system and add one more step toward the county's high-tech future, Burton said in a letter to the County Court.

Hiring McNary was a bad move because a county job should go to a resident, some residents said. There were at least three other applicants for the job, all county residents, who had no planning experience. State law doesn't require the county to interview every applicant for every job, but it does require that all applicants be asked the same questions. When McNary applied, it became difficult, if not impossible to ask the same questions of each applicant, county officials said.

Much of the county's professional services, such as attorneys, insurance and some mental health services, already come from outside the county, and Salem handles building codes, and the electrical inspector is based in Pendleton, said County Court Judge Dennis Reynolds and Commissioner Boyd Britton at the Feb. 15 meeting of the County Court. Commissioner Scott Myers wasn't at the meeting, but he earlier supported the hire, after some initial misgivings.

The professional expertise the county needs isn't available here, Britton and Reynolds said.

"We made a decision based on what's best for the county," Britton said.

There was mention of the many times the county has invested time and money to train someone and then the person leaves the county for a better job, or because their spouse lost a job or couldn't find one here.

McNary was the county's in-house planning director for four years, until late last year when her husband, Dan, was offered a job as FFA director at Glide High School. The move was a difficult decision, based on family needs more than anything else.

They were living between Mt. Vernon and Dayville, with long drives to work, he to Monument, she to Canyon City, which left precious little time for their new daughter, Abby, who was born two years ago.

"And there is another baby on the way," McNary said.

Hilary got a job as a planner for the Umpqua Regional Council of Government, which assists small cities that can't afford a planning department. It was a short drive to work, and daycare was just down the street.

McNary takes her daughter to daycare in morning and picks her up at noon. The county insisted that family noise would not be in the background while she's on the phone, and McNary agreed.

She was laid off in December, around the time her replacement here, Shannon Springer, was considering leaving the job for one in the county watermaster's office. (See Springer's letter to the editor on Page A4 -Ed.)

From McNary's perspective, it's just a matter of wanting a job she enjoys and to be able to provide a needed service in a timely manner. She heard the position was open, and she made a proposal to the county. Umpqua called her the other day and offered her her job back, but she turned it down.

"I'm not trying to take advantage of the county," McNary said. "I still have a feeling of ownership of that department."

When McNary was first hired as planning director in September 2001, she did not have any experience as a planner. She had taken some land-use courses, but that was it.

"It took (about) two years to become able to do (the job) in an expedient manner," she said.

She started her second stint at the helm Feb. 6. Since then, one person has come to the counter with a planning question McNary had to address. Otherwise, Moline provided the customer service. In general, the customer's McNary works with are professionals who don't come to the counter. The questions she handles are of the more complicated variety.

When she was here, she worked with people who own land in the county, but live elsewhere, such as in Arizona and Washington. There are people she worked with while she was here that she never met other than on the phone.

It's too early to tell if the telecommuting will work, or even if McNary will like it.

There are home-based challenges, such as getting things done around the house, and not being able to because she's on the job.

"I can't combine the two worlds real well right now," she said. "I think I'll like it long-term. I need to adjust my thinking and pretend I'm leaving the house when I go into my office."

Don Coffey of the Education Service District office is handling the technical side of the operation.

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