OK, we know. Given the definition above, a section on “best” bureaucrats seems like an oxymoron. The very definition of a bureaucrat connotes red tape, inefficiency and all that's bad about government. It means acting without thinking — going by the book, even if the book makes no sense.
Yet elected officials and public employees are key decision-makers at the intersection of government and business. And their decisions — or how they carry out the decisions of others — have widespread ramifications for commerce in their communities.
So we've dedicated this issue to recognizing those in Gulf Coast governments who “get it.”
These are people who understand that hampering business interests stifles the liveliness and robustness of a community's economy. They aim to strike a balance between regulation and common sense, and remove barriers where possible for business to let a freer market decide. In some cases, they're also focused on projects that help make their communities more attractive for business. You'll find their stories sprinkled throughout the following section.
In addition, we also spotlight four controversies in which governments' decisions affect business significantly. Some are for the better, such as Lee County's consideration of a moratorium on impact fees, while others are for the worse, such as two Manatee County beach cities' hold on development while they seek new building regulations.
There's also some good news. As we reported this issue, we found one thing to be generally true: The pendulum has shifted in favor of business. While the boom brought many anti-business factions and regulations looking to put a hold on prosperity, the recession has made many local governments more willing to work with business interests to help their communities recover. As we know, government doesn't create jobs, businesses do. Here's to those people helping businesses do just that.
-Lisa J. Montelione
Who: Christine Robinson
Position: Sarasota County Commissioner, District 3
Why she gets it: Robinson has only been on the commission for three years, but in many ways she began to prepare for her role more than a decade ago.
In fact, Robinson and her husband, Eric Robinson, attended Sarasota planning meetings in 2001, when they were Miami newlyweds who sought a new place to live. The Robinsons even went to meetings where the main topic was the Sarasota 2050 plan, a strategy to manage four decades of growth.
The couple ultimately moved to Sarasota and Eric Robinson, an accountant, eventually became chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party. Christine Robinson, meanwhile, entered politics in 2010, when former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed her to the commission. Robinson replaced Shannon Staub, who retired; Robinson was elected to a four-year term on the commission in 2012.
In less than three years, however, Robinson, a Republican, has earned the admiration of fellow commissioners and many in the business community. Some consider her a leader in the movement to pare back wasteful government spending. Venice-based entrepreneur C.J. Fishman, who owns Fishman & Associates Inc., a commercial kitchen firm, says Robinson is a true forward-thinking politician.
“She does her homework, and she's open to listening to everybody and anybody,” Fishman says. “She's also not afraid to make decisions that aren't popular.”
Who: Richard Gehring
Position:Planning and Development Administrator, Pasco County
Why he gets it: In the four years since Richard Gehring has guided Pasco's strategic growth, the county has made strides toward the goal of transforming itself from a bedroom community to a thriving metropolitan center.
Gehring aims to attract large employers to Pasco, where the population has grown 35% since 2000, to nearly 500,000. The county stepped up to reduce or eliminate transportation impact fees — now called mobility fees — to encourage employers to expand or relocate to Pasco. The savings can be substantial, about $3 million for a 1 million-square-foot development, says Gehring.
Two big employers are preparing to open sizable operations in the county. T. Rowe Price Group, the Baltimore-based global investment manager, has secured a site for about 1,600 employees, says Gehring. And Raymond James, the financial services firm based in St. Petersburg, has examined sites for about 1,500 workers. “Those types of new employment coming to Pasco have been a game-changer,” he says.
A big financial installation can attract a host of smaller firms, along with retail development. Gehring wants to deliver a higher quality of life, which means making a place where people can work close to their homes, rather than make long commutes to Pinellas or Hillsborough counties, as many workers do now.
“Everybody gets up in the morning and travels south,” he says. By 2030, the county aims to grow 150,000 new jobs in Pasco.
He has targeted job growth along the U.S. 19 corridor, a dense spine where 225,000 people are concentrated — nearly half the county population. Its collection of multifamily properties, shops, and medical offices were built in large part, back in the 1950s and 1960s, to accommodate the retirement community. The area has since transitioned to a more diverse population. But the corridor lacks sidewalks, and there is a high accident rate, says Gehring. “We're trying to make it safer.”
He envisions bike paths and sidewalks, neighborhoods where residents can walk to shops, parks, libraries, and offices. “It will be a major redevelopment area,” Gehring says. “It'll take a while.”
Who: Paul Caragiulo
Position: Sarasota City Commission, District Two
Why he gets it: Several business leaders say Caragiulo brings an entrepreneurial spirit to government that the city commission has generally lacked. Caragiulo has also earned a reputation for meticulously studying both sides of a debate. Prominent local commercial real estate executive Ian Black calls Caragiulo "tenacious," especially when it's an issue that pits slow-growth or no-growth advocates against the future of the city.
“He's proactive rather than reactive,” says Black “and many of our commissioners have been reactive.”
Caragiulo, 38, comes from a family of restaurateurs. His four brothers and their father founded Caragiulos Italian Restaurant in downtown Sarasota in 1990 after they moved to Sarasota from New York. The brothers have since opened several other restaurants. Caragiulo first entered politics in 2006, when he joined the Sarasota Civil Service Board. He was elected to a four-year term to the city commission in 2011.
One issue that Caragiulo has been a leading voice on, many times a lonely one, is support for a strong-mayor proposal. The current form of government is city commission-city manager, where administrative powers lie with the manager, who reports to the commission. Voters don't directly elect the mayor.
Caragiulo believes the city needs an elected mayor who can champion causes and set the tone for the future. But city residents, at least in referendums held in 1996, 2002, 2006 and 2009, have rejected strong-mayor proposals.
“I'm not different because I want to be contrarian,” Caragiulo told the Sarasota Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer, earlier this year. “I'm just in a different place. I didn't come here to retire or relax.”
— Mark Gordon
A Better Road
Who: Karen Seel
Position: Vice chairwoman, Pinellas Board of County Commissioners
Why she gets it: For nearly two decades, Seel has immersed herself in improving the infrastructure and services of Pinellas County. As a commissioner, she has focused on transportation and health care. “We widened a lot of our roads,” and eased traffic congestion, she says. She also championed the improved bus system, to transport employees to work.
Seel supports Pinellas efforts to draw high-tech firms and lucrative jobs. The tech corridor, in turn, has attracted more businesses.
Seel tackled the costly problem of providing health care to people lacking coverage, mostly by moving non-emergency visits from the emergency room to primary care physicians. “That's been very successful,” she says.
The program serves 15,000 people for roughly half the cost of a previous program serving just 3,000 patients, says Seel. Contracting directly for primary care and other services helped trim costs. Still, the price of health care programs remains problematic. Keeping costs low can reduce the potential tax burden for businesses and residents.
New challenges lie ahead, says Seel, particularly when it comes to continuing to make the county an attractive place for residents and businesses within the confines of the county's budget. The frayed edges of cost-cutting are visible at Pinellas parks, where the landscape maintenance budget was cut to fund more critical services. Cutbacks also affect stormwater maintenance, says Seel, and some public and private ponds have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. “It's pretty pathetic,” she says.
As the regional economy improves, some programs will benefit from funds set aside to aid post-recession recovery. Seel supports renewed efforts to attract startups and healthy companies to sunny Pinellas, she says. “Who wouldn't want to live in paradise?”
'Like a Business'
Who: Carol Whitmore
Position: Manatee County Commissioner, At Large
Why she gets it: Whitmore was elected to a four-year term to the commission in 2006 and again in 2010. Plus, her career in politics goes back even further, to 16 years in Holmes Beach in Manatee County. She was a city commissioner there for eight years and mayor for another eight years.
At every stop, Whitmore, a Republican, has impressed many in the business community with her focus on keeping it efficient. Her campaign pledge in 2010, in fact, was “to make government a lean mean machine.”
Added Whitmore, during the campaign: “I have no problem doing what we have to do to run government like a business and not another governmental mess.”
Whitmore, on that point, has supported several pro-business initiatives, including impact fee reductions to spur development. She also has a reputation for listening to all sides and avoiding knee-jerk decisions. “She cares and she listens,” says Bradenton attorney Will Robinson, who has represented several developers in front of the commission. “She's the best example of what you want to have in a public servant.”
Whitmore, in an issue not directly connected to businesses, recently championed the cause of converting Manatee County to a no-kill community for animals. Animal advocates have praised that program, which has brought the county some positive national attention.
— Mark Gordon
(Really) Small Government
Who: Carl Schwing
Position: Bonita Springs City Manager
Why he gets it: Carl Schwing knows a bloated bureaucracy. As the head of Cape Coral's community development department for three years during the real estate boom, Schwing oversaw a staff of 210 employees. That was a fraction of the city's 2,000 staff during the peak years of 2005 and 2006.
Today, Schwing works with 14 people who run the city of Bonita Springs in south Lee County. “There are so few of us we know when things are good or bad at home,” Schwing says of his staff.
You would be hard pressed to find two cities in the same county with more opposite organizational structures. Cape Coral has eight unions it has to bargain with; Bonita Springs outsources most of its functions. “It's easier to terminate a contract,” Schwing says.
For example, Bonita Springs has contracted with CH2M Hill to run its community development department, the agency that issues permits for new construction, among other functions. Schwing calls this “government light.”
This question drives decisions at City Hall: “What can we do to make it more business-friendly?” Schwing says. “Level of service is key.”
The contract with CH2M Hill has specific and measurable benchmarks the company must achieve. For instance, customer wait times cannot exceed 15 minutes, phone calls and emails must be returned within four hours and residential permit applications must be reviewed within four business days.
There's no room for employees who don't subscribe to this business-like operating philosophy, like working late hours. “Sometimes you have to tell them to go home,” Schwing says. “They have to buy into the culture of the city.”
The city manager's office immediately helps any business that needs help establishing itself in Bonita Springs. These businesses get Arleen Hunter, the director of development services, to be a business advocate. “Her job is to clear the way, make it as painless as possible,” Schwing says.
Who: Don Paight
Position: Executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency
Why he gets it: Don Paight is one of those rare bureaucrats who understands what businesses need to succeed. “Profit is not a bad word, and sometimes government doesn't understand that,” he says. “We're an advocate for developers.”
The proof of his success: In the 26 years he's led the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency, Paight helped shepherd nearly $1 billion in investment into the downtown area, the majority of it private capital.
Like so many cities around the state, businesses and residents were fleeing downtown Fort Myers when Paight arrived in March 1987 to lead the newly created agency.
Paight's first challenge was to keep county, state and federal government agencies from vacating downtown, too. “If we had lost government, the attorneys would have all followed,” he says. “There really would have been an exodus.”
Paight, 63, got the city to pledge that it would match whatever deal government agencies could get in the suburbs, and he persuaded them to stay. “That showed the private sector that government was committed to downtown,” he says.
Once stabilized, Paight worked hard to bridge the gap that often exists between the private and public sectors. An avid hiker who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Paight says the formula for success downtown is communication.
When he's presenting a private-sector project to government officials, he doesn't just paint the rosy scenario. He tells them what the risks are also, creating trust that he'll show the whole picture. “I don't want to just sell the good side,” he says.
Of course, pro-business politicians have led Fort Myers city government over the years. The current mayor, Randy Henderson, is a real estate developer and former banker.
Money helps, too. The agency has the power to rebate property taxes under an instrument called tax-increment financing. For example, the agency is providing $5 million in tax rebates to a developer planning a $60 million project to rehabilitate an old hotel into senior housing.
But Paight doesn't just focus on the big projects. When the city was repaving the streets in recent years, the agency paid the common-area maintenance fees of as much as $6 a square foot for small-business owners who were affected.
More proof of Paight's success: Forty new storefront businesses have moved into downtown Fort Myers in the last two years, including shops, restaurants and bars. Downtown is now home to 57 nightclubs and restaurants.
Raise your glass to that.
A Friend to Small Business
Who: Lisa J. Montelione
Position: Tampa City Counilwoman, District 7
Why she gets it: Councilwoman Lisa Montelione recognizes that small and medium-sized businesses drive jobs and provide a key to Tampa's economic progress. But many firms operate with lean staffs and lack the resources to track information that could save them money, provide tax incentives, and help them navigate regulations.
The councilwoman, whose district includes installations of such multinational giants as Johnson Controls, Pepsi, and Quest Diagnostics, and ancillary smaller companies, is developing a program to provide smaller firms with critical information to help them thrive.
She also brought officials from federal and local agencies together with bankers and entrepreneurs to discuss how firms can obtain the loans that banks say they are providing. Companies that need to expand or fund new inventory are having a hard time getting credit, says Montelione, a former bank employee.
“We wanted to get everybody together in a room and talk about how we can bridge that gap,” she says. Officials from the Federal Reserve and FDIC, small business and economic development officials and entrepreneurs were among the hundreds who participated. She intends for the process to be ongoing. It's in the city's interest to help firms sustain their operations, since business taxes provide essential revenue.
One of her projects is a planned clearinghouse to dispatch information to companies, including via mobile platforms. For example, an owner who is expanding a building in a historic district could receive a packet showing how to proceed without violating city restrictions. Owners could find out about financial incentives for job creation. “A lot of people have no idea what programs are out there,” says Montelione.
Montelione says she's encouraged by downtown Tampa's new growth. For years, it was a ghost town after dark, she says. “When I first moved here 20-some years ago, you could lay down in the middle of Ashley Street at 7 p.m. and not get hit by a car.” Now, frisbees are flying at Curtis Hixon Park, and free concerts fill the area with music. There's a sense of optimism, she says. “It's almost unprecedented.”
Who: Nick Casalanguida
Position: Administrator of the growth management division of Collier County
Why he gets it: For years, Collier County's growth management department was legendary on the Gulf Coast for the nightmarish labyrinth that frustrated business owners and delayed new projects for months.
That's before Nick Casalanguida got there.
At the direction of County Manager Leo Ochs and together with James French, another top official in the department, Casalanguida set about reorganizing the agency starting in 2011.
In March, the department will be one of the first in the state to take permitting online. That means the days of builders standing at counters will soon be over. After that's done, land development and zoning will go online. Finally, major capital projects such as roads will also be completed via the Internet.
“It's about the customer,” says Casalanguida, a former body builder who owned a civil engineering firm in Massachusetts before settling in Naples. “You won't have to drive here anymore.”
Casalanguida says his department established aggressive goals to cut the time it takes to review site development and zoning applications. “Our goal is to shave 25% off the first review,” he says, noting that in the past that process could take 30 days. The second review will be cut by 50% to 15 days and if a third review is needed it will be cut by 75% to five days.
To make sure employees are productive enough to meet those goals, Casalanguida is considering splitting the shifts so the second group of employees can work from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. and have no interruptions after 4 p.m. “The obligations you have during the day take away from the reviews,” he says.
As a starting point, Casalanguida is building a room in the growth-management division where as many as six permit reviewers can work without interruptions from phone or emails. “We'll definitely be getting the sequestered area,” he says.
Ultimately, Casalanguida says the county's reputation is at stake. “The reward is that we're getting a reputation for being business-friendly,” he says. “That keeps us motivated.”