TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners set their budget-cutting sights on the agencies that review new construction Thursday.
Their targets: the Environmental Protection Commission, the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and the Planning and Growth Management Department.
Their argument, as advanced by Commissioner Jim Norman: New construction has fallen dramatically, so the number of people the county pays to review new development should fall commensurately.
"We need to match the market," Norman said Thursday. "I don't want fluff jobs in there while we wait for the market to catch back up."
Norman's comments came as commissioners met to dissect County Administrator's Pat Bean's proposal, which cuts spending in most departments by 7 to 8 percent. He argued that new construction has fallen close to 80 percent, so the agencies that regulate it should face much steeper cuts.
Other commissioners joined him.
Rose Ferlita had made the same argument with different words for the office that oversees county buildings, like new fire stations. With projects delayed because of falling property tax receipts, she argued that the county's real estate office should be pared, as well.
"Although we may need these people (in the future), we can't afford the luxury of the Maytag repairman," she said.
Commissioner Brian Blair was quick to agree: "It's simply not fair to ride off the back of the same taxpayers who are suffering with the market."
Norman made clear afterward that he advocates cutting only sections of those offices that oversee construction. For instance, he said he doesn't want to cut policing of air pollution by the EPC.
Still, his argument and the support of other commissioners is likely to rally environmental activists, who depict the board as overly pro-growth. Many of them see the board as eager to cut regulation of new construction even in strong growth periods.
Denise Layne, a land-use activist who plans to qualify as a candidate against Blair today, said the county should use this slow time to improve how regulators serve developers and protect neighborhoods and the environment.
"Instead of trying to fix our system right now, they are actually trying to degrade it, and it really is very sad," Layne said.
County officials said it will be a challenge to determine how much to cut. Unlike construction trades businesses that have gone bust, county government must be able to quickly respond if the market ramps back up.
"Certainly it's an issue that needs a good look," said EPC Executive Director Rick Garrity. "On the other hand, you don't want to dismantle a program that would be very difficult to rebuild when development does come back."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.