It’s time the Shreveport City Council and the Caddo Commission look at the facts when determining the performance of the Shreveport Caddo Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC).
Let’s leave all the hubbub about lame duck MPC Executive Director Mark Sweeney either being as planning pioneer who has unfairly taken too many arrows in the back or an autocratic, inflexible development killer who has more spin than substance. Sweeney has resigned and his last day is Aug. 15.
So let’s review documented facts.
1. The MPC is a government entity with no accountability to taxpayers. The nine MPC board members are not elected by the public. Neither is the executive director.
2. Shreveport’s 2018 funding of the MPC is $800,000. The Caddo Commission funds $200,000 to the MPC. This is $1 million of public funding.
3. The MPC also derives funding from permit applications for any development, plot plans, variances, and rezoning.
4. The MPC has jurisdiction over all of Shreveport and 4 miles into the parish adjacent to the city limits.
5. The MPC has a primary responsibility to implement the Unified Development Code (UDC) of Shreveport enacted in May 2017 and the Caddo UDC (which has minor variations from Shreveport’s) in December.
6. The Bossier MPC, which is a joint parish city agency, is funded 50/50 by the city and the parish.
7. The funding split for the Shreveport/Caddo MPC is 80/20 by city and parish. The city also provides office space and accounting services to the MPC at no charge---the value of which is probably in excess of $100,000.
8. The Bossier MPC has six full time and one part-time employee. The 2018 staff payroll will be less than $332,000.
9. The Shreveport Caddo MPC has 16 full-time employees and its projected 2018 payroll costs are over $900,000.
10. The Bossier MPC processed 127 cases in 2017, and in 2016. Through June of this year, it processed 71 cases.
11. Since the adoption of the Shreveport and Caddo UCDs last year, the MPC has processed fewer than 70 cases.
12. So, doing the math: Assume that June-December 2107, Bossier MPC processed 70 cases. That is 10 a month, lower than the 12 months 2017 average, and does not factor in the warm months conducive to construction.
13. Add to that 71 for 2018 for a total of 141 cases in the 12 months since June 2017. Compare that to Shreveport/Caddo number of 70 for the same time period.
14. As for staffing costs, the Bossier MPC payroll budget is 36 percent of Shreveport/Caddo MPC’s. Yet it processed twice as many cases in the 12 months ending June 30.
15. The Shreveport Chamber mediated, with a limited success, complaints with the MPC. The proposed changes must be approved by the MPC board, then sent to the council and the commission for approval for their respective UDC’s.
16. Unfortunately, Sweeney has elected to split the changes into two groups—the first to be considered on July 11 and the second group on Aug.1. This means that it will be September, at the earliest, before the respective changes will be fully implemented.
17. Sweeney could have and still can call a special MPC Board meeting to fast-track the approval of all the amendments.
18. The MPC board hired Sweeney four years ago.
19. Sweeney is directly responsible for both the Shreveport and Caddo UDCs. The city-funded $350,000 and the parish $250,000 for the Chicago consulting firm that he selected to develop the UDC’s.
20. He did not contact the firm that developed the Bossier UDC which has been in effect for several years. The Bossier MPC has proven to be very, very practical for this area and especially user-friendly.
21. The Shreveport-Caddo UDC had many requirements that were totally not applicable to this area. A good example is a requirement that buildings facing the Red River and any inland waterways (think Cross Bayou) must have 60 percent windows on the side facing the water.
22. Additionally, the landscape requirements are excessive and considerably more encompassing than any other codes in the state.
23. The list of cumbersome and unnecessary requirements could go on and on. Suffice it to say, the Shreveport-Caddo UDC’s have not leveled the playing field for development in Shreveport and Caddo as compared to east of the river.
24. In fact, the new codes have even tilted further in Bossier’s favor as the easy choice to build and develop. This reality can not be ignored by even the most dedicated Sweeney-UDC supporters
25. Shreveport City Councilman James Flurry introduced several months ago an ordinance to establish an internal city planning office. This ordinance should be voted on either July 10 or 24.
26. Flurry strongly believes that an internal office would save Shreveport substantial money and provide more accountability to elected officials. The facts support his logic.
27. The Caddo Commission is also dissatisfied with the MPC. It probably will reduce MPC funding for 2019. If Shreveport establishes an internal planning office, the Commission would contract for planning services. Because of the low volume of cases in the parish, the commission is unlikely to create a Caddo planning office.
28. Many commissioners favor reducing the planning jurisdictional limits from four miles to one mile outside city limits. This change would reduce the number of parish cases even more.
29. An economic feasibility study prepared for the MPC recommended that the funding ratios for the city and parish should be 60/40. It’s unlikely that the parish is going to increase its 20 percent funding ratio.
30. Substantial sentiment on the city council holds that if the joint MPC board is to continue, then representation on the MPC board should reflect funding percentages. The council and parish each currently appoint four members, and a ninth member is jointly appointed by city and parish. Based on 2018 funding, the city should have at least six appointments.
31. The current MPC board is totally dysfunctional. The June meeting was an example, as seen on publicity available video. Board members encountered substantial difficulties in adding items to the agenda. The board chairman, Theron Jackson, behaved as if he were a dictator. Not pleasant viewing.
32. And then there is the potential conflict of interest by two board members. Chairman Jackson and board member Curtis Joseph are two of the three principals in the proposed $1 billion Cross Bayou project. They have said they will recuse themselves from any board votes on the project. Yet they are part of the five-person board majority that votes in lockstep with Sweeney and his staff. Their board membership presents a veiled threat to the MPC office that affects staff decisions on the gigantic project.
33. Additionally, their presence can subjectively influence any other proposed MPC development actions that could compete directly, or indirectly, with their development plans.
34. Another example of conflict is the proposal for a $240 million planned unit development to be considered by the MPC Board July 11 for the old Shreveport Country Club. Board member Joseph is the local pitchman for the project. Even though Joseph will recuse himself from any votes, his participation again compromises the integrity of the MPC board.
35. The arguments against an internal planning office lack substance. They are also reflective of planning principles that are no longer applicable to the economic reality of Shreveport and Caddo Parish.
36. One argument is against the expansion of city hall departments. Council members Stephanie Lynch and Willie Bradford question the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing city departments and are against adding another. They overlook developers who could provide jobs to both districts suffering from high unemployment.
37. Councilman Jeff Everson has a planning background. He can be credited with bringing the long-needed overhaul of Shreveport’s building and zoning requirements. But Everson has failed to accept that the Shreveport UDC imposes too many requirements that are time-consuming, complex, onerous, and expensive.
38. Councilman Mike Corbin, who like Everson will reach his term limit this year, has also opposed an internal planning office. Corbin says the MPC board should take care of its own business. In his new position at SWEPCO/AEP, Corbin should confidentially consult with company officials. They can share their difficulties working with Sweeney for reasonable adjustments to the UDC before enacted.
39. The other argument against an internal office by the planning gurus is that the independent agency removes politics from the planning process. This argument sounds good in academia but does not reflect the real world. Funding of the MPC is political. Appointment of Board members is political. Appeals MPC decisions to the city council and commission are political.
40. Here’s an example. Earlier this year the MPC Board voted unanimously to allow a former Circle K on the southeast corner of East Kings Highway and Gilbert Drive to sell hard alcohol. The Circle K had moved across the street. Beer was allowed for sale at both locations. On appeal, neighbors opposed the expansion of hard liquor sales in their neighborhood. Their appeal failed on a 3-3 vote. Litigation has stopped the rezoning. A deep pocketbook will probably prevail in stopping the rezoning requested by a successful minority businessman.
41. Another example. The council heard an appeal from a unanimous MPC board to allow the expansion of the parking lot at Superior Mexican restaurant. The expansion would back up to houses behind the restaurant. This appeal was granted on a 7-1 vote.
42. Councilman Michael Corbin and Jeff Everson voted to grant the appeal against hard liquor at the old Circle K location, but they split on the Superior parking lot -- with Everson voting to stop the parking lot and Corbin to permit it. Thus, Corbin voted in one instance to stop hard alcohol sales and in another to assist a local restaurant known for its ‘killer” margaritas. Seems like politics at work.
The MPC office and its implementation of the UDC is not working well for development in Shreveport. Pinning magical hope on a turnaround by a new executive director is not realistic.
The upcoming vote on a city internal planning office is crutial -- one of the most decisive the council will take this year. Council members should put aside their dissatisfaction with Mayor Ollie Tyler when deciding. Additionally, they should leave personal pride, prejudices, payback in the back room and not display them on the council dais for this vote.
Without change, expectations of real development progress can be dismissed. The facts are there.