Proposed Dade budget: 3% Planning and Zoning fee hike along with 34 job cuts
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade Planning and Zoning fees could go up 3% across the board next fiscal year.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez is calling for the fee hike in his newly unveiled fiscal 2010 proposed county budget, which recommends also service cuts and layoffs to close a $427 million gap.
Fee collections make up about 65% of the Planning and Zoning Department's budget.
The department levies application fees and charges for a bevy of services including reviewing site plans and development of regional impact development orders.
Its fee schedule online is 25 pages.
Planning and zoning officials did not respond to requests for an interview, or answer e-mailed questions regarding fees, processing times and staffing.
The fee hike proposal comes as surprising and unwelcome news to the building community, Builders Association of South Florida President Ashley Bosch said.
"We're obviously opposed to any fee increase at the current time for obvious reasons. Were taking a bath in this market, and no one is in a position to increase costs."
Especially not after recently supporting a hike, he added.
"We all supported a 20-25% increase last year, and in addition to that we also supported an 8% technology increase," Mr. Bosch said. "Since we've gone ahead and as an industry supported a significant increase in costs… we think it just doesn't make any sense" to up the fees again now.
And in an economy where construction has ground to a near halt, "this is another hindrance and obstacle in the way of getting things back online," he said.
On top of the proposed 3% fee increase, the mayor's budget proposal calls for planning and zoning staff cuts.
Should commissioners OK the department's budget as proposed, 34 positions would be cut: 16 in the zoning division, 14 in the planning division and four from the historic preservation staff.
Other positions would be added, however — some to department administration and three to a new economic analysis and policy section, which is to replace the county's existing Office of Economic Development Coordination.
On the planning side, losing three principal planner positions — on top of a $60,000 cut to charrette expenses — will "delay enhanced and coordinated transportation planning with land use planning, limit the department's ability to prepare Neighborhood Plans, delay countywide economic planning efforts and reduce community planning support in" unincorporated Dade, the proposed budget says.
Losing also a junior planner position and a planning consultant "will limit the department's ability to effectively provide area long range and economic planning functions," it says.
Losing a clerk, a legal adviser and a services coordinator position while cutting $30,000 from the department administration's operating budget "will delay the preparation of resolutions and ordinances…" the proposed budget says.
The document predicts it will take longer to process zoning applications because of the proposed staff cuts.
The past two fiscal years, it took 192 days on average to process a zoning hearing application, 20 days more than a targeted 172.
For the upcoming year, the target is 180 days.
Also for the past two years, the department aimed to complete all zoning reviews of building permits on time but hit 85% in fiscal 2008 and a projected 90% in fiscal 2009.
In fiscal 2010, the goal is 95%.
Even before these proposed cuts, the department has been moving "surprisingly slowly for the current state of affairs and the current work load," Mr. Bosch of the builders association said — at the "same pace or a little bit slower actually than when we were in the boom."
He predicts "impact in a negative manner if there are staff cuts… We hope that we can work through that and obviously expedite what's going on whether the cuts take place or not."
Mayor Alvarez's proposed budget also calls for changes in the county's Building Department.
It's to merge with the Office of Neighborhood Compliance, meaning 88 code enforcement positions are to be added to the newly combined Building and Neighborhood Compliance Department.
But 36 permitting positions are to be cut, along with four information and permit support posts.
Now, the building department, which serves only unincorporated areas of the county, is self-sufficient and proposes its own fee rates.
Last year, fees across the board went up 25%.
It's too soon to know now whether they'll be raised again, department spokeswoman Miriam Rossi said via e-mail in response to a request for an interview with a department official.
"The Building Department is in the process of analyzing our next year's budget thus [it's] too soon at this time to reply on the final outcome," she said.
Merging building with neighborhood compliance "will not impact the operation of the Building Department," Ms. Rossi said.
The budget is still too new to address specifics, she said, but "the services as well as mission of the Building Department to protect residents with efficient,accountable and responsive permit processing including enforcement of regulations governing buildings and unsafe structures will not be impacted."
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, chair of the county's Budget, Planning and Sustainability Committee, said it's reasonable to propose small fee increases to developers, calling the changes recommended in the budget "fairly reasonable and small enough so that they would be palatable."
Commission Vice Chair José "Pepe" Diaz said he's outright against increasing the cost of doing business in the county during the recession.
"I have to help the businesses," he said. "If we don't help the businesses, we're shooting ourselves."
Commissioners have the final say on the budget and are to hash out changes during a series of meetings between now and the end of September, when the fiscal year closes.