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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 21, 2017 3 years ago

Planning department gets boost in city budget

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Despite criticism from some commissioners, the city will add staff to its burgeoning planning department in 2017-18.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Criticizing a perceived lack of thoroughness in the budget process, City Commissioner Hagen Brody has pointed to Sarasota’s Planning Department as an example of excess spending.

In the budget for fiscal year 2017-18, officially approved with a 3-2 commission vote Monday, the Planning Department adds three positions. Those jobs represent just over $285,000 in new spending. The 10-person Planning Department budget represents about 2% of the city’s general fund expenditures.

Brody’s objection to the proposed budget focused on the sustainability of the city’s growth. The Planning Department jobs represent three of the 16 new positions added in the 2018 budget. A year ago, the Planning Department didn’t even exist — because the city eliminated it during the recession.

In Brody’s eyes, city staff is expanding too quickly without considering challenges that could arise down the line.

“It doesn’t appropriately take into account future expenditures for the city,” Brody said.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie agreed with Brody, but for the rest of the commission — and for Planning Director Steve Cover — the planning positions are an investment in improving the quality of life in Sarasota.

“I think we’d be more irresponsible not to fund these positions,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said.

Two of the new planning jobs are focused on transportation, while the third is a general planning position that will work on implementing the city’s new form-based zoning code. Cover said hiring dedicated planning staff to focus on issues important to residents, particularly traffic, will allow the city to make more significant progress.

“When I came here — just from general observations, but also from hearing a lot from the communities and businesses — transportation seems to be a really important thing,” Cover said.

The transportation planners will be tasked with producing a transportation master plan. Cover wants those workers to develop a guideline for implementing effective transportation changes throughout the city.

“It’s not just going to be a plan that has recommendations, and that’s it,” Cover said. “It’ll include what projects need to be done, in what order and at what cost.”

Brody questioned the impact adding staff would actually have on long-standing issues like transportation and development. Cover said those subjects haven’t gotten undivided attention from the city in the recent past. He believes the new positions will encourage a more forward-looking approach.

“We’re just reacting to what’s being submitted to us,” Cover said. “We just can’t be operating that way. We have to be proactive and really get ahead of the game.”

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