Tallahassee, FL – The budget Governor Rick Scott signed into law eliminates the Department of Community Affairs. State planners in Tallahassee will no longer, in most cases, regulate when and how city and counties make changes to their growth plans. James Call reports , although environmental and other citizen groups protested the dismantling of the agency, business groups say the change sets the stage for economic growth.
"Our division of community planning will go from 61 to 32, all those positions will be going to the new department of economic opportunity."
James Miller is a spokesperson for the Department of Community Affairs. It loses its Department Status July first, and its remnants will be divided among other agencies.
"Florida Community Trust is our land buying program. All 16 positions transfer intact to the Department of Environmental Protection...Florida building code how many is that? 15 positions all transfer to the Department of Professional Regulation."
More than 10 percent of the 229 DCA employees will lose their jobs. Most of those who don't will go to work for the new Department of Economic Opportunity. Since the 1985 Growth Management Act, state planners reviewed changes to cities and counties growth plans to make sure, among other things, the development was needed, did not harm water supplies and schools and roads were in place to handle more people. It's been a generation-long experiment that at times created problems for developers, business groups, agriculture and land owners. Senator Don Gaetz pushed for downsizing DCA as a way to create more economic growth.
"And that is what we are doing when we eliminate the Department of Community Affairs, a job killing agency. We create this department of Economic Opportunity and we provide it with tools that are historic in the amount of flexibility given to the governor that is able to carry out an economic development and jobs creation program."
Environmental groups who spoke against the idea at committee meetings were overwhelmed by DCA opponents. Florida's unemployment rate is in double digits and critics charged DCA was a nit-picking agency that needlessly delayed construction projects and blocked economic opportunities. Associated Industries of Florida, which bills itself as the voice of Florida business, helped lead the charge. AIF's Jose Gonzales said a recession and the election of a pro-business governor and a conservative legislature made the 2011 legislative session the right time to strike."
"We have finally been able to get the legislature and a governor who are sort of in lock-step when it comes to at least these issues. And we found an opportunity, a window kind of open, and we thought,'hey, this is our chance to make these changes that will hopefully create a business climate conducive to making economic activity as easy and less burdensome as possible'."
Gonzales does not predict Floridians will immediately see a positive economic impact with the dismantling of the state growth management agency. A recession has created a surplus of housing and office buildings that economists say will take years to consume. Gonzales said once the national economy recovers and retirees once again flock to Florida then Florida's business climate will be prime for growth.
"There may be some who don't believe that is a good thing. But in the business community that is what creates jobs, it represents economic opportunity, it represents economic activity, and it represents the state of Florida going back to what it use to be."
And that is what concerns the environmental community. They say the lessons of the 60s and 70s taught them that when the choice is between the green of the environment and the green of money,people often pick money. UF graduate student Estelle Robichaux made that point when she spoke to a senate community in support of a state-wide planning agency like DCA.
"And over the past 50 years if we learned anything is that the market does not incorporate environmental externalities very well. An ecosystem while there are local components to it is not local. An ecosystem is broader and in the state of Florida we have ecosystems that take up hundreds and thousands of square miles. And there is no way a local community is going to incorporate all of that thought into development of planning processes when it is in juxtaposition to economic concerns."
The environmentalists lost the debate. And DCA's 229 employees are making plans. More than 20 community planners need to find other work, 77 administrative workers are waiting to see if they will lose their jobs. The remaining workers are preparing to become part of the new Department of Economic Opportunity. The DCA's James Miller.
"You know if you look in the parking lot, I mean it's, yea I guess, it's a full parking lot. It's a packed parking lot. If people were upset or baling, you would probably notice it. I come in here every day I'm one of the first people here and it is just as packed as it normally it is. Nothing changes in that regard at all."
As of July first DCA will no longer be a department of the state. Its dismantling will be completed by October first.