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Auditor slams Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission for poor recordkeeping

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission does a poor job of keeping track of how well it protects wetlands, according to a county auditor's report.

The auditor also was unable to confirm EPC efforts to speed up review because of record-keeping inconsistencies.

That makes it difficult to suggest ways to streamline the agency's operations, the county's internal performance auditor reported.

"It is unclear if they are protecting wetlands because of the incomplete data," said Chad Lallemand, who helped prepare the report for auditor Jim Barnes.

EPC Executive Director Rick Garrity accepted the report's findings in a written response. He said his staff is working to improve reporting and make recommended changes.

Al Higginbotham, chairman of the EPC's board, which is made up of county commissioners, said he had not seen the report. But he said the findings, as related by a reporter, were not a surprise.

"This streamlining is a work in progress," he said.

The report stems from the County Commission's threatened elimination of the wetlands division last year, which was protested vigorously by environmental and neighborhood groups. In a compromise, commissioners adopted a plan to streamline the office, asking the auditor to suggest ways to make that happen.

The auditor looked at the EPC's role in reviewing concepts for developments that may damage wetlands, as opposed to nuts-and-bolts construction plans. In reviewing the conceptual proposals, the EPC suggests ways a developer can avoid or minimize encroaching on wetlands.

Barnes' office says that the EPC does not document all of its successes in steering people from damaging wetlands.

EPC officials do keep track of how many acres of wetlands are destroyed each year by new construction and how many man-made acres of wetlands are created to offset that.

But the agency doesn't count the number of acres saved by early intervention.

Garrity, the executive director, said keeping track of wetlands avoided at the more conceptual phases may be a challenge. Plans change, sometimes independently of the agency's input.

But he said his office will try harder to chart wetlands saved.

"I don't think that's unreasonable at all," Garrity said. "It's a performance measure we need to have."

Documenting how fast the agency reviews development plans is also a challenge, Garrity said.

The EPC claims it has gotten better at meeting deadlines for signing on construction around wetlands — from 58 percent of the time in 2006 to 84 percent last year.

Lallemand said he could not confirm that through agency records. Some records showed incorrect deadline information, he said.

Garrity said the agency often has to deal with incomplete applications, which slow the review process. Tracking actual deadline performance is tough when that happens.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Auditor slams Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission for poor recordkeeping 03/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 5:30pm]
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