After 42 years, the Department of Community Affairs, which is charged with monitoring housing and commercial development in Florida, will cease to exist.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill (SB 2156) Tuesday that dismantles the growth management agency and merges it with several other agencies, such as the Agency for Workforce Innovation, to form a new state agency.
The Department of Economic Opportunity will officially be created on Oct. 1. But preparations are already underway to dissolve the Department of Community Affairs to form the new agency. That means dozens of employees could find themselves out of a job by the end of the month.
This major overhaul of state agencies was a prominent part of Scott’s legislative agenda. It is the first major reshuffling of state agencies since the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services was dissolved into four different agencies in the early 1990s in response to scandals and an effort to cut costs.
“The bill I signed today provides us flexibility to seize opportunities created by developing markets and effectively respond to the changing needs of the businesses that grow our economy,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
The bureaucratic shuffle is intended to help create jobs, Scott said. The growth management agency is being eliminated in concert with a new law that drastically reduces the agency’s power to supervise development decisions, which will now be made largely at the local level. The agency, established in 1969, was designed to help prevent sprawl and congestion.
The massive 838-page bill also implements other bureaucratic changes, such as shifting millions of dollars that would have gone into a trust fund for affordable housing and transportation projects into a new fund supervised by the Department of Economic Opportunity dedicated to incentivizing businesses to come to Florida.
For the people who worked at the Department of Community Affairs, the changes to the growth management law and the transformation into the new agency means they might lose their job.
The agency is currently staffed at about 220 people, about 150 of whom will retain their jobs. The people responsible for overseeing what is left of the gutted growth management law will be transferred to the new Department of Economic Opportunity. Those jobs are shrinking from more than 60 to just over 30 positions.
Other positions, such as the 16 people responsible for overseeing the Florida Forever land preservation program, will be shifted to the Department of Environmental Protection. There will also be about 15 jobs involved in regulating Florida building codes shifted to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
DCA spokesman James Miller said no decisions have been as to what happens to the building that the Department of Community Affairs occupies. It’s in Southeast Tallahassee’s Southwood development, which is also home to several other state agencies.
Miller said efforts were made to find jobs for some of the employees whose positions were cut. So far, about 10 employees out of about 70 facing job losses have found jobs in other state agencies, he said.
While DCA employees await the transfer of duties, groups that routinely do business with the planning agency are closely watching the construction of the new state agency to determine how they might be impacted.
Charles Pattison, president of 1,000 Friends of Florida, said the group will shift its efforts more toward local governments and away from what had been a more centralized approach.
Without DCA playing the role of overseer, local planning decisions will have to be dealt with locally by citizens who previously did not have to navigate the complex world of comprehensive planning.
“Our response is that we will have to work harder with the public,” Pattison said.
Pattison said one fear is that the planning function will become secondary to the new agency’s primary purpose of attracting businesses to the state and assisting the efforts of Florida companies to retain jobs and expand.
“There is clearly a role to be played protecting the state’s quality of life and the environment,” Pattison said. “We see those areas as key economic benefits the state offers.”
Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, a group of affordable housing advocates, says the coalition is watching how the new agency will divvy up federal community redevelopment funds that formerly passed through DCA. One concern is that affordable housing dollars will become another marketing tool to attract companies to the state instead of targeted the people in need of services.
“There may well be a change of focus to using them as economic development incentives,” Ross said.
On the other hand, Ross said the change of leadership and focus could remove some of the restrictions that DCA has placed on affordable housing funds. In either case, state oversight will diminish.
“My take on this is that we are going to need citizens to be involved on the local level.” Ross said. “Most decisions will be made at the local level.”
–Lilly Rockwell and Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida