TARPON SPRINGS — A proposed reorganization of the city's Development Services Department has drawn so much criticism from city commissioners and the public that City Manager Mark Lecouris has withdrawn it for modifications.
The proposal called for three current staff members to be fired, including a 29-year employee nearing retirement, and replaced with three new employees.
The reorganization was intended to improve efficiency and help the department cope with an increasing workload as construction picks up, Development Services director Joseph DiPasqua told city commissioners at a recent meeting.
"We simply do not have enough people to handle the workload," DiPasqua said. Unless something was done, he said, people would be facing waits of two or three days for inspections.
City officials acknowledged they've gotten complaints about lagging inspections and permits.
"With this increased development coming, we are going to be underwater if we don't do something fast," Lecouris told commissioners.
But speakers at the commission meeting accused the city of mistreating loyal employees, especially 29-year veteran Richard Hague, who among other duties is the city's arborist.
DiPasqua said only licensed inspectors can perform building and building-related inspections, which far outnumber other kinds of inspections. But his department has only 1 1/2 employees available to do those; two other inspectors can't do building inspections.
The proposed reorganization would eliminate the current construction inspector, construction engineering inspector and senior engineering technician/arborist and replace them with three new "development inspectors" qualified to do all inspections.
"We need a team that can do soup to nuts," DiPasqua said.
Hague, the senior engineering technician/arborist, talked to friends after learning he'd lose his job in the reorganization. Friends spread the word, city commissioners began getting calls and emails, and upset supporters and tree lovers showed up at last week's commission meeting.
Though some critics assumed that the loss of the arborist meant the city would no longer protect trees, Lecouris and DiPasqua said the new employees still would inspect trees, even if they weren't certified arborists. He added that employees would be encouraged to obtain the certification.
The three targeted employees could apply for the new positions, but if they didn't meet the requirements or weren't selected, they would be terminated with six weeks of severance pay.
Mayor David Archie wasn't happy that commissioners were forced to discuss personnel matters in a public meeting. Commissioners agreed that the city needed to perform inspections and issue permits more efficiently, but they didn't like the plan's handling of current employees.
"Their experience with the city is something you can't just go out and hire," said Commissioner David Banther, wondering if just adding one more inspector would be sufficient.
Commissioner Susan Slattery worried about the message the proposal was sending to other city employees.
After hearing all the comments, Lecouris suggested the commission delay a vote on the proposal until he could modify it and bring it back with some different "nuances."
The commission voted unanimously to defer the item.
In other action, the commission approved a development agreement with the Burnard Group for transforming a city-owned former nursing home at 501 S Walton Ave. into an assisted living facility. On March 11 city voters will be asked to approve sale of the property to Burnard.