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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.”