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Greasing growth machine, DEP to award staff for quickly issuing permits

In December, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection laid off 58 employees to cut costs. Several who were fired went public with allegations that the DEP is easing regulations on industrial plants and developers that could have far-ranging environmental consequences for years to come. And environmental groups are threatening to sue over lax water protections.

Yet on Friday, the seemingly embattled agency was held up as an example of good government by a legislative budget committee that awarded it permission to dole out more than $500,000 in bonuses.

Recipients will be “high-performing” employees who, among other things, were deemed to have improved customer service and reduced the time it takes to issue permits, a criteria that conservatives found refreshing and environmental advocates found vexing.

“Everywhere I go I hear my constituents tell me how efficient the agency is, whether they are for or against a permit,” said. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “The agency is doing its job and this vote will award that efficiency.”

“The thing that bothers me is when they start emphasizing speed, they threaten to turn the DEP into a Jiffy Lube,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, who was in Tampa and couldn’t attend the meeting. “If they’re stressing that employees to get a job done quickly, rather than do the best job they can, we lose the guarantee that the DEP is properly focused on the environment.”

The $571,961 incentive program will be paid from the $8.8 million the agency said it saved in cutting costs. Bonuses ranging from less than $1,000 to about $5,000 will be paid to 269 employees (out of a total of 1,600) by August. About 25 percent of those getting them will be supervisors.

“Over the last year, the regulatory programs at DEP have saved a tremendous amount of money,” said the DEP’s deputy secretary, Jeff Littlejohn. “We’ve done this through common sense cost saving measures, and operational efficiencies, and we’re also setting very high performance goals.”

The bonuses drew a lone, sharp dissent on the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission , which is chaired by Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Joe Negron. Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said they send the wrong message to employees about their work.

“You’re arguably providing an incentive to turn your head,” Pafford said.  “You’re giving someone a bonus for them not to take the time required when reviewing permits. That’s dangerous for an agency called the Department of Environmental Protection.”

Littlejohn said other criteria are included in evaluating who gets the bonuses. But he didn’t minimize how much supervisors stressed speed. He said those reviewing permits must contact the applicant within 48 hours. 

"We’ve encouraged, empowered and motivated our folks to pick up the phone and ask these questions or email them, try to push the application process along," Littlejohn said. "This is about reducing process, not lowering standards."

Littlejohn says the new streamlined processes are working, and he points to 2012 numbers that show the percentage of high-risk operators and facilities who are in significant compliance with state regulations was at 94 percent, an all-time high.

But others could read something else into the high compliance figures.

DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard has hired a number of people in the agency’s upper ranks with resumes brimming with backgrounds as engineers or consultants for companies that the DEP regulates. Littejohn himself spent more than 10 years working as a consulting engineer getting state and federal permits for his clients.

And they all work for Gov. Rick Scott, who has placed a premium on bringing new jobs to Florida, many of which would need quick turnaround for new facilities that have yet to be built. Scott has already eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, which reviewed large development plans. Lawmakers in 2011 also reduced the time the DEP has to review permits from 90 days to 60 days.

Pafford said those were all challenges to the DEP from outside. The bonuses pose a challenge from within.

“You have an organization that’s built for protection,” Pafford said. “This is an incentive to make things happen quicker, which changes the DNA of the whole purpose of the agency.”

Comments

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John Burt  Caylor

John Burt Caylor
9:56AM JUN 29TH 2013
The Florida DEP is now run by fascists who want to rid their ranks of anyone who wants to protect Florida's fragile environment. The Director is a Fascist who wants to reward his Oligarch buddies and let them destroy Florida and the reason people come here to live and vacation in this paradise that God gave us. To let those business people pollute our drinking water and poison our rivers and waterways is a crime.

As an Investigative Journalist since 1970 and former contract employee of the United States E.P.A. Region 4 HQ in Atlanta I can tell you that the E.P.A. relies on the Florida D.E.P. to insure that environmental regulations mandated by Congress are carried out to protect the people's safety and welfare, but since Jeb Bush was elected governor he personally killed that oversight and the Florida D.E.P. became riddled with corruption at the top. Charlie Crist did the same.

Since Lex Luthor Scott has taken over it is worse - Good Scientists have been fired over ideology and reason (common sense and intelligent decisions) have been replaced by graft and corruption.

In 2004-5, I investigated and published reports in my street magazine (Emerald Coast Insider) about Aztec Environmental and Big Wheel Recycling an Alabama-Florida firm owned by big shots in the Republican party. Previously in Alabama the owners had been indicated and convicted of 18 U.S.C. racketeering - the U.S. Marshall's were ordered to seize their Panama City, Florida - Steelfield landfill where water tests showed high concentrations of metals at the construction and demolition landfill. I the F.B.I. and PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) deduced that the source could have been nerve gas rocket residue from the Anniston, Alabama Army Depot which had been ordered disposed of in a secure lined landfill, which this landfill is NOT and is still partly owned by former FLA House speaker Alan Bense the DEP PERMIT was rammed through to approve the new owners funded by Charles Faircloth a kingpin of organized crime.

George Bush's Marshall's in VA took over and gave the landfill back to the Florida company for a few dollars - and the addition of key republicans to the company payroll to include Jeb Bush, I have the FBI and USAF investigative documents to prove this and they can be viewed on-line under dead U.S. Attorneys story.

The E.P.A. wanted to dig up that landfill and PEER and I demanded a criminal grand jury which convened at Pensacola, Fl to investigate the company which had 5 billion in U.S. government contracts for asbestos abatement at military installations where Homeland Security caught them smuggling illegal aliens (workers) onto top secret military bases.

Many of those people who were Pakistani and had Spanish surnames and illegal passports disappeared when they were on those bases.

George Bush personally ordered U.S. Attorney Greg Miller to shut down the criminal grand jury to protect his brother and Miller who later resigned over my stories turned the case into a civil debarment where the company folded and lost all those contracts. But we still insisted that the landfill be dug up because "blue bottle flies' were seen in landfill which come from fresh rotting human flesh were in this landfill and also one they owned in Echols County, GA home to Moody AFB. The United States Attorney handling the confiscation and seizure was my friend Roy (John David Atchinson) who was last seen on FOX News wearing a green bullet proof vest and proclaimed as a pedophile by the F.B.I. in Detroit, Michigan - Roy was a witness against the President and his brother Jeb Bush - several days after warning the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General, Investigator Powell that Roy would be murdered I was told to butt out that he was under a 24/7 watch. Roy was killed while in federal custody and the government claimed he committed suicide, No one has ever seen the autopsy. Now so much for the DEP jetting through the permitting process and circumventing the health, safety and welfare of our citizens - some people have paid with their lives to protect you.

Rick Scottstory

This whole DEP thing is shady as heck. Florida is such a beautiful state and Rick Scott is looking to ruin it.

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