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Monday, Aug. 14, 2017

SHREVEPORT CITY COUNCIL

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Votes for feasibility study on internal planning office

In a move to address many concerns about the Shreveport-Caddo Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), the Shreveport City Council passed a resolution at its Aug. 8 meeting authorizing the city attorney to research and study the feasibility and legality of creating and operating an internal City Planning, Zoning and Development Department (“Shreveport PZ&D Department”) along with a City PZ&D Commission and a City Zoning Board of Appeals. The resolution requested that the city attorney report its findings to the Audit and Finance Committee within 45 days.

The city attorney was also requested to make recommendations to the mayor and the city council regarding transitional legal matters about the city governing its planning and zoning matter within its corporate limits and the possibility of contracting with Caddo Parish to administer its planning and zoning ordinance. Currently, these functions are provided by the Shreveport-Caddo Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), which is a separate governmental entity funded by the City of Shreveport and Caddo Parish. The MPC has jurisdiction over all of Shreveport and five miles outside the city limits in the parish. This agency is charged with regulating zoning and building development and enforcing zoning regulations.

The city funded over $1 million to the MPC this year; it also provides financial services to the agency at no charge. The parish chipped in $240,000; fees generated by development in the parish are reimbursed by the MPC to the parish. The MPC also derives income from zoning applications, subdivision platting and other planning services required for construction. The city and parish, which together own Government Plaza, provide the MPC rent-free offices.

The MPC is, in theory, governed by its nine-member board of volunteer commissioners. The city and the parish each appoint four members, and they choose the ninth member jointly. MPC Executive Director Mark Sweeney has an employment contract with the MPC board; he is the only public employee in North Louisiana with such a contract. The contract was recently renewed for another year by a 5-4 vote of the board; the deciding vote was cast by a commissioner with less than three months' service on the board.

The legislation that authorized the combined city and parish planning office was enacted by the Louisiana Legislature in 1962, and it is discretionary, not mandatory. Additionally, the Louisiana Constitution provides that the city council or the parish commission can serve as individual planning commissions. The Shreveport City Charter also authorizes the city to have an internal planning office. Thus, either the city or the parish can pull out of the Shreveport Caddo MPC and refuse to fund that office in 2018. A simple majority vote of either body will, in effect, pull the plug on the combined office.

The city has many reasons to seriously consider pulling out of the MPC and establishing a separate planning office. Initially, the city could offer to provide planning services for the parish on more favorable terms than it now has with the MPC – i.e., no reimbursement of the parish from parish-generated fees.

Secondly, the city could save money through the economies of scale it would achieve by combining MPC functions into existing city functions. The MPC is authorized for 20 employees and currently has 18, including Sweeney, and they all currently participate in the city retirement system and health insurance program.

Lastly, the city could regulate the internal affairs of a planning office, such as office hours, travel expenses and equipment purchases.

Since becoming executive director in the fall of 2014, Sweeney has closed the MPC offices from noon until 1 p.m., shutting off the lights, locking the doors and setting the phones to be answered by a recording. After the council’s vote for a feasibility study, Sweeney decided to keep his office open during the noon hour.

Sweeney spent almost $20,000 this year on travel, and he has spent more than $80,000 on office furniture, carpet and equipment while executive director. Additionally, the legal services for the MPC would be provided by the city attorney office; the MPC budget has a $20,000 line item for this expense.

Earlier this year the council approved a $30,000 budget amendment for the MPC to fund a study to determine the appropriate funding by the city and the parish, along with fees that should be charged for MPC development services. The study is also to include recommendations for staffing and salaries. This report is expected in September, which will coincide with the feasibility study from the city attorney office, and it will be beneficial for council consideration in establishing its planning office.

City Council Chairman James Flurry sponsored the resolution and aggressively lobbied for its passage. He stated his motivation was as simple as ABC: “A” for accountability, “B” for business friendly and “C” for customer service. Flurry believes that an internal planning office would provide a substantial improvement in all areas. Additionally, Flurry believes that the city could realize a cost savings of $400,000 (or more) per year, which could be utilized to address pressing budget concerns such as a police pay raise.

John E. Settle Jr. has been a resident of Shreveport since January 1977. His articles appear regularly in local publications. He can be reached at 742-5513 or e-mail to: john@jsettle.com

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