HAMILTON, Mont. -

Ravalli County commissioners are exploring options to merge planning and environmental health offices into one department. It's a move that has generated a great deal of fire.

Under the proposal, the departments would share the same floor and the same department head. Planning director Terry Nelson would oversee both offices and both budgets.

An environmental health director vacancy wouldn't be filled, and a lead sanitarian could be promoted from within.

Commissioner Ron Stoltz brought the idea to the board.

Supporters said it could save money and be more convenient for the public. But critics said planning and environmental health are two different animals that need to operate separately. They said the county needs to hire a full-time environmental health director with full qualifications.

Rod Daniel is currently serving as interim director.

Residential appraiser Sarah Roubik told commissioners that "right now we have Terry Nelson, who is qualified in many areas. But he is not a sanitarian."

"Now you're going to think about putting him as the manager over all these other sanitarians," said Roubik.

"I'm speaking as a fiscal conservative," said real estate broker Teri Polumsky. "You have a great opportunity now. It's not very often that you're able to combine services due to attrition. You're not having to let anybody go."

Commissioner J.R. Iman said he thinks the departments should be separate.

But no decision was made.

Almost everybody who came to the meeting spoke out against the proposal, as did more than 25 people who sent emails and made phone calls.