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Monday, 17 August 2015 11:37

Water and Politics – Why the Water District Caved

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(additional material by Trent Townsend)

To the property owners living in the 16 counties served by the South Florida Water Management District the flip-flop by the district governing board on July 31 will mean about $6.

To the district it will mean about $21 million less in a budget of over $600 million.

But to Governor Rick Scott it means one more opportunity to say he cut taxes as he mulls a run for U.S Senate.

It may have been the latter and not the former that was weighing on the minds of the five board members who sensed the political winds and reversed their votes at a special meeting called by Chairman Dan O’Keefe specifically to do an about-face.

“There’s a feeling in Tallahassee where they don’t want to impose tax increases when they don’t have to,” O’Keefe, who voted in favor of adopting the rollback rate, said after the meeting. “I think there was a level of frustration that we were proposing the tax increase when we had the money to fund our budget.”

Even the number of dollars to be collected and spent seems to be aside from the point. The governor had asked the Legislature to fund the district to the tune of $150 million, money that would have come from the state budget and not from the property tax collected by the district itself.

The Legislature instead sent along under $90 million. That left the governing board staring at an $8 million operating deficit, even after raiding reserves to the tune of $200 million. So instead of further cutting the one revenue stream it can control the board voted 6-2 on July 16 to keep its property tax rate the same.

Environmental groups praised them for their courage. It seems that praise was premature.

Representatives from these groups made up the bulk of the few dozen people attending the special meeting, with most participating in public comment before the vote. While the writing may have been on the wall for the way the vote was going to go down, twenty members of the public stood in front of the governing board that morning and implored them to stay the course with their July 16th decision.

“South Florida depends on the services of the district,” Doug Young of the South Florida Audubon Society said. “We’re already experiencing sea level rise despite what some people may say. The District will need additional resources to repair and upgrade the flood control infrastructure of a changing climate.” Young also noted that he felt the pace of Everglades restoration was too slow.

“Holding steady on the Millage rate is the right thing to do,” Young concluded.

“I think this is a foregone conclusion,” Drew Martin, a volunteer for the Sierra Club, said. “I don’t think you all would come back here to make the same vote, although I hope you do.” He went on to warn them against their hopes of federal and state money to bridge any budget shortfalls in the future. “They don’t even want to use the Amendment One money that 75 percent of our state’s population voted for. They won’t use it for anything.”

The Board, of course, went ahead with the vote to accept the rollback rate instead of the previous Millage. After the meeting, several members of the audience offered their thoughts to Sun Bay.

“This decision starts to render the District ineffectual,” Laura Reynolds of the Tropical Audubon Society said. “It’s been a death by a thousand cuts since 2010.”

“The tax base in this District has contracted,” Martha Musgrove, who spoke during public comment on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said after the meeting. “Now we have not only cut the budget, we have cut the Millage, and now the big question is where the money comes from?”

The only support for the rollback came from Craig Varn of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who took to the podium immediately after the public had their say.

“Everything that was proposed is still proposed,” Varn said. “Nothing is changed.” He repeated the mantra many on the Board had made that day, stating the importance of the various government entities working together to keep things funded.

Board member Mitch Hutchcraft echoed Varn’s assessment in an interview after the meeting.

“It’s not about this year, or necessarily about next year,” Hutchcraft said. “It’s about the trend. We have time to work with our partners to address issues, and having that conversation now and continuing it over the next couple years will ensure that we can address the budget requirements.”

However, the recent track record of the government does not seem to favor such optimism.

John Scott is a founder of Clean Water Initiative Florida and a chapter leader for the Sierra Club. He said the state’s penchant for cutting environmental agency budgets leaves polluters free to do as they will.

“I think many of us realize this is by design so that polluters and violators can operate with impunity purchased by campaign contributions and other favors which then gives those agencies cover to say ‘we’re doing the best we can with what resources we have,’” said Scott.

Rick Barber, CEO of the engineering firm Agnoli, Barber, and Brundage and a west coast governing board member, said he did hear from DEP Secretary Jon Stevenson this week. It was clear Stevenson wanted the rollback rate, he said.

“It was plain to me they didn’t want a tax increase,” he said.

Barber said having DEP officials pledging to help the district see to it projects get funded helped.

“I think the fact we got DEP there and we got them to look at the long-range plan and how we will fund these things (helped him change his mind)” Barber said. “We had not gone into the depth on these projects like we did today.”

Barber said governing board members didn’t need to hear from the governor to know where he stood. Scott frequently boasts of tax cuts in his stump speeches.

The promise of future help sounds good, Barber said, though he acknowledged it’s no sure thing. Barber is chairman of the district’s Big Cypress Basin board in Collier County. He said he believes strongly in the work he’s doing and wants to keep doing it.

“There are certain things I can change and certain things I can’t,” he said. “For me to stay there and keep working hard on these things we have to work together.”

“I was appointed by Governor Scott,” Barber said. “And that’s reality.”

When Sun Bay requested a response from the Governor’s office for this story, their reaction was brief but to the point.

“They did the right thing,” Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Governor Rick Scott, said.

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