Since Gov. Bill Haslam announced in April that all state-run planning offices would close in mid-July, Dr. Michael Marchioni has been “rather distraught.”
Marchioni, an East Tennessee State University professor, directs the Master of Public Administration program and teaches classes in the planning and development concentration. Haslam’s move, he said, will essentially privatize planning, putting those services out of reach for all the local, small, cash-strapped municipalities.
“Those offices have been around for 70 years. They provide those services to all the municipalities that can’t afford a planner,” he said. “The going rate for a (private) planner is $125 to $200 an hour. I don’t think those small municipalities can afford that.”
With that need in mind, Marchioni has developed a proposal to launch a University Planning Services program, in which second-year MPA students would be able to provide those same services for local municipalities, working with them on different planning initiatives, such as parking studies, revitalization projects, demographic profiles and site facility plans.
The proposal, Marchioni said, is still in its exploratory phase. The university and local governments would need to iron out details, including liability issues and cost structure, but he can’t find many drawbacks in the plan so far.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said.
In addition to giving smaller governments planning services at a more reasonable cost, the partnership could open up internship opportunities for the planning concentration, increase the program’s visibility, and provide funding for scholarships and graduate assistantships that is lacking right now, he said.
The proposal would also serve to correct the image that students can’t perform on a professional level, Marchioni said. In the past, his students have provided comprehensive planning studies to local governments — for free — only to see the government turn around and award an expensive contract to a private company for the same service. Some of the students involved in the program have even been previously employed as planners, and are just returning to school to earn a higher degree, he said.
MPA student Thad Jablonski agrees that many people have that perception of students, but said all of his colleagues are ready to work as professionals.
“Any city, any town, we could hit the ground running,” he said. “We turn out generalist planners.”
The program focuses on smaller municipality planning, under 100,000 in population, and attracts many students interested in public service, Jablonski said.
For Marchioni, it’s about service, too, and this program gives his students and him a chance to expand their service area — especially to municipalities that will be in need come July 15, when Johnson City’s local planning office shuts its doors.
“People call ETSU Johnson City’s university, but we are a regional entity,” he said. “We are here to serve the region’s needs.”