Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fiscal Neutrality: Write to the County

From Cathy Antunes (via email):

The creation of the Fiscal Neutrality methodology is where the rubber meets the road.  It is critical the process and information shared be transparent, that the most important stakeholders - taxpayers - have a prime seat at the table.  Please write to the Commission (you may want to include the others Larry has written to as well).  Let the Commission know the public must have the same access given to private interests in this process.  If you would like me to share you letter with others (which would be much appreciated) please cc me.

Thanks for caring for our community and have a great weekend!


Letter to Sarasota County Officials from Cathy Antunes:

Dear Commissioners, Mr. DeMarsh, Mr. Roddy, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Polk,

I am writing to applaud the stated goal of transparency in the creation of a fiscal neutrality policy, and to request details on how interested citizens can participate in the creation of fiscal neutrality methodology. Taxpayers are key stakeholders in fiscal neutrality policy creation, and as such expect and deserve a prime seat at the policy creation table.

The process for introducing 2050 policy changes was initiated by County planning staff meeting with Neal Communities, Schroeder Manatee Ranch and others private interests before the public process was initiated. The inequity in access undermined public confidence in the creation of 2050 policy changes. We do not want to see the same kind of inequity with fiscal neutrality. I’m sure we agree the process must be open, transparent, inclusive from the beginning.

Citizens interested in fiscal neutrality methodology and policy creation expect the same access and information afforded to private interests. It is the citizens of Sarasota County who will, after all, be responsible for resulting infrastructure costs if the fiscal neutrality methodology is lacking.

How will the County ensure effective public participation and oversight at the outset? What is the plan to ensure interested citizens are included and given the same consideration and opportunity for input which will be extended to landowners outside the USB? A transparent process includes:

Access to fiscal neutrality meetings
Timely (real time/swift) access to policy creation information, including:
- terminology, definitions being employed in policy creation
- all methodology under consideration

Welcome to our new Commissioners! I look forward to a cordial working relationship with you both.

Cathy Antunes
Member, 2050 Action Network

2050 Action Network includes:

Sierra Club
Council of Neighborhood Associations
Audobon Society
City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations
Venice Area Citizens for Responsible Development
Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida
Control Growth Now
Suncoast Waterkeepers
Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government

Letter to Sarasota officials from Larry Grossman:

I appreciate the County sending me a copy of the Agreement for Fiscal Neutrality with AECOM Technical Service Inc.. Although this is a fully executed contract my comments suggest that the contract should be amended to include the citizens of Sarasota County as part of the study process.The contract is now structured so that citizens have no input, no information and no opportunity to affect the technical document and consultant product until it is too late. As we found in the public hearing process with the amendments to Sarasota 2050, none of the comments that citizens offered were incorporated into the final Comp Plan amendments. 

We really don't want a repetition of the futility of participating in a process that affects us but upon which we have no effect.

My comments concern the interaction of the consultant with interested and affected parties during the study process and whether this process provides fair and equitable access to the consultant for all stakeholders. Also, I have a question about transparency which is used in the Scope of Services but is applied in a most peculiar if not limited way as I will explain in the bullet points. I have questions about the substance of what is being asked of the Contractor -the inadequacies, obfuscations and ambiguities contained in the Scope of Services which would surely confuse any and all citizens if they cared to try to read this document. I also think it incumbent upon the County to explain to the citizens how Fiscal Neutrality standards and requirements will be operationalized as part of the Zoning Ordinance and how these rules will be enforced and the penalties for non-compliance of its conditions affecting the subject property or properties. I also believe there are better approaches to Fiscal Neutrality that focuses on impact mitigation and avoidance.

Consultant Interaction with the Public during the Study Process

  • VIII- Responsibilities of the Consultant - Article (J) requires the Consultant to notify the County one day in advance of any meetings with stakeholders. It is not clear whether the notification is to allow the County to veto any and all such contacts or to allow County staff to be in attendance at all meetings. The issue is who gets access and gives input to the Consultant? What are the rules? What if the Consultant spends ample time with developer and property owner interests but no face time with citizens? In Task 3 under (ii) Meetings, there is a kick-off meeting to "confirm data sources, contacts, communications protocol between AECIM and various County agencies and with private sector sources". No where is there mention of citizens and citizen groups as parties of interest. What are these protocols and why aren't we included? How does this provision relate to the prior citation concerning notification of contacts? This needs to be clarified.


  • The Overview section of the Scope of Services use the "transparent" but applies transparency to the "practical formulas" for Fiscal Neutrality. I don't really know what this means in this context since zoning ordinances are public documents and are transparent. The formulae cannot be "black boxes" from which numbers emerge. Really transparency needs to be applied to the process for determining the factors and multipliers which will be used to develop the methodology for fiscal impact analysis and application.  And this process is not purely a cut and dried technical operation. It's actually a policy document that determines what's to be counted and what's not to be counted or not considered important enough to be counted. This is like knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing. For example, are we looking at marginal costs or average costs? Are we considering future scarcity of resources and the value of those resources in the future? Or will the methodology assume resources and their value are constant throughout the life of these projects except for inflation?

  • Transparency should be required of the process not only the product. Task 3: Prepare Technical Report indicates that only during the public hearings will the citizens have a chance to comment. This too late for citizens to provide effective input without costing the taxpayers even more money for the consultant to make substantive changes. We need input earlier and we need a transparent process where we can see and comment on the assumptions the Consultant is using in the methodology. Citizens really need to meet with County Staff and with the Consultant and other stakeholders to air out any concerns with the methodology before its developed, not after. No doubt the Consultant will be meeting with developers for input on cost factors or absorption rates and pricing and other information needed to develop realistic Sarasota based numbers based on the experience and forecasts of the development community. Citizens need to know and educate themselves as to how the methodology will be developed and the foundational assumptions which determine the outcomes. 

Substantive Issues

  • Schedule and Phasing - I don't understand why the six months of work are divided into two three month periods. That is, if all the heavy lifting so to speak is done in the first phase why would the revisions  take as much time to complete as the draft Technical Document as reviewed and commented on by staff.  There should be a finer breakdown of the time schedule and deliverables that conforms to the tasks outlined in the Scope of Services. Breaking down this process would allow citizens to be more participants than outcasts as deliverables are produced and, I would suggest, made available to the public maybe through public workshops as part of the public educational process. It is unfair to deliver a highly technical document fraught with assumptions at the end of the process and just have formalized public hearings at the end of the process. You all can do better than that and we deserve better. Who is paying for this contract? Taxpayers. 

  • I'm really concerned that the methodology is one that will be cast in the past and ignorant of the future. What are "best practices"? This all depends on the questions asked of the consultant and there are no questions asked by the County for the Consultant to address. Where else has this been tried if not implemented and what were the results? Task II Development of assumptions, metrics, analytical approaches  -  this paragraph is obfuscation at its best or worse depending on your perspective. What are "standard" vs. "typical" assumptions? Please stop abusing the English Language and say something meaningful so that citizens can understand what will be done in this task. What are "transparent analyses" and "state of the industry practices"? Just jargonese.  The future is not going to be a repetition of the past and we need a methodology that addresses the conditions likely to prevail over the period of building of projects subject to Fiscal Neutrality regulations. We need some creativity here and some risk analysis which reflects uncertainty about the future and not just what someone else did somewhere ten years ago. The "state of the industry" may be already obsolete and outdated. 

  • Task II (g) last line asks that the Consultant recommend an "implementation strategy and process" for Fiscal Neutrality. This is not an insubstantial effort that should be relegated to one line of a subtask. And it has nothing to do with the overall task on assumptions, metrics and analytical approaches which is the title of Task II. This should be a task unto itself and the County should explain what is to be "implemented". Is this a revision to the Zoning Ordinance? I have no idea what this sentence is talking about and what is expected of the consultant.  

  • Did the staff write the Scope or did the Consultant? I find the three pages of Scope of Services (which should be a Scope of Work) really inadequate and fuzzy without interim deadlines and deliverables and sign-offs for interim reports. Typically, a jurisdiction seeking professional services sends out an RFP and receives proposals that are far more structured with clarity as to the consultant's understanding of the problem, the analytical approach, tasks and progression to deliver a final product with  identifiable milestones and  interim reports and due dates along the way. There should be an operational definition of fiscal neutrality and how it will be used but this is missing from the overview. Is the product a guide to developers who will submit Fiscal Neutrality analyses or a means of evaluating a proposed development based on the methodology developed by the Consultant? How is it that the County can verify projected revenues from a multi-phased multi-year development proposal? How would this methodology verify the numbers submitted by a developer? Why would a developer submit an analysis that showed that the subject project was not fiscally neutral? What if it wasn't? What would the County do? Reject the project?  As a Note: there is a typo Task II paragraph (d) with the words "non-commercial development" when it meant commercial development.  

  • Fiscal Impact Analysis is usually used as a tool for land use planning and policy making. The State of Maryland did a study of what the effect of sprawl would be on future State costs and made a decision to invest State infrastructure funds in those areas which would be most cost effective and provide the greatest return on public investment. I have never seen the concept of Fiscal Neutrality applied as part of a Zoning Ordinance where a project at any time in its development may be non-compliant with the Fiscal Neutrality principle and therefore in violation of the conditions under which the project was approved. I have a real concern with enforcement and citizens should know how this is to be done. 

 Optional Approach

  • In 1987 I prepared a study and recommendation that the City of Alexandria find that development projects of a certain size be held responsible for mitigating traffic impacts on the adjacent roadway system and neighborhoods. Each development which met those thresholds had to obtain a Special Use Permit which was discretionary and conditioned upon approval of a Transportation Management Plan aimed at reducing traffic impacts generated by the development. The Program was funded annually by the collection of fees per unit of use or per square foot of use and deposited in a fund held by the development entity and administered by an on site manager. The Program and fund were intended to encourage transit use, car-pooling and modes of travel other than single occupant vehicles. The Program funds discounted transit fares, shuttle buses, pedestrian facilities, car sharing programs, bicycle facilities. The annual funds from 71 Transportation Management Programs is $2.4 million. 

  •  The principle of mitigating impacts to reduce or to avoid costs is different than an impact fee which requires the developer to pay for an impact but not to reduce or avoid it. The public's fiscal burden of constructing or widening a road to accommodate increased traffic generated by a development may be relieved by the developer paying for the "improvement" but the impact of the widening, its costs, go beyond just the cost of construction. There is the loss of green space, the pollution generated by road runoff affecting water quality and unburned fuel affecting air quality, the trash, increased accidents, impaired natural habitat, increased road kill and other "costs" that are simply not counted and ignored.  Shouldn't the planning for these developments focus on impact mitigation and avoidance through an on site  program funded by the developer? Should developers be given the option or required to mitigate impacts and costs identified in the Study as an alternative to being allowed to "pay for pollution" so to speak? 

  • So Fiscal Neutrality, as yet defined, is anything but normatively neutral. It is about choices and who makes those choices. The model may be inadequate to "neutralize" the panoply of social and environmental costs associated with urban forms of development In rural settings ( aka Sprawl). This is why citizens are concerned with how these models are constructed and what factors of cost are considered or conveniently (simplistically) ignored.

  •  There is also concern that the developers will game the system by choosing to produce high end housing for high end home buyers who are less dependent upon government services and generate more net revenue for the County and for the developer thus creating affluent enclaves but not housing opportunities for all income groups. Is this the intent of Fiscal Neutrality or its unintended consequence?     

 I hope my comments are only the beginning of a dialogue that is yet to be and yet may not be if the Fiscal Neutrality Study is not amended to accommodate meaningful citizen input and participation. Sarasota County is blessed with an educated and intelligent population of citizens who have much knowledge, much experience and much passion to continue and enhance the quality of life and living here. Why waste these resources when citizens can be the fountain of new ideas? Also, the study should be an educational tool for citizens who want to better understand the technical aspects of the study. The Study would better serve its public purpose if those affected by its recommendations are allowed to participate in the making of those recommendations.

I am writing to you as a member of the 2050 Action Network and my comments about citizen participation are shared by all members of this organization. My other comments about the efficacy of Fiscal Neutrality and specific comments about the Contract and Scope of Services are my own and have not been reviewed, edited or agreed upon by other members of the Network.

thank you for your consideration of these comments.

larry grossman
763A St. Judes Drive  
Longboat Key Florida 34228

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