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Wednesday, 29 July 2015 13:29

Water Management District Bucks Governor – Refuses to Cut Taxes

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The 2015 SFWMD governing board meeting in West Palm Beach. The 2015 SFWMD governing board meeting in West Palm Beach. Photo: Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch

On July 16 the Board of Governors of the South Florida Water Management District ignored the recommendations of its staff – and of Tallahassee – and voted to keep its property tax rate the same instead of rolling it back.

Environmentalists lauded what they called a bold move, choosing to fly in the face of Gov. Rick Scott’s promise to cut taxes wherever he can. Every one of the eight board members – there is a vacancy – was appointed by Scott.

“I thought that was great,” said Brad Cornell of Audubon of the Western Everglades of the tax vote. “There’s a long to-do list for the district, including Everglades restoration. This is not the time to cut back.”

Six of the eight board members agreed. Chairman Daniel O’Keefe, an Orlando land use attorney, and James Moran, an attorney from West Palm Beach, finished on the losing end. O’Keefe has since called for a special meeting to reconsider the vote, a meeting scheduled for Friday July 31.

Under Roberts Rules of Order, used as procedural rules for most government boards, O’Keefe could not have brought the issue back for a re-vote. The governing board functions under the state statute that created it instead, and the statute calls for the chairman to call all meetings.

O’Keefe did not return calls to explain why he called the special meeting.

“We know why,” said Rick Barber, CEO of Agnoli, Barber, and Brundage Engineers of Naples, a west coast member of the governing board. “It’s to reconsider.”

Barber said he hasn’t changed his mind, though there’s an hour-long workshop scheduled to take place before Friday’s special meeting.

“We’re supposed to be enlightened as to the financial plan for the district in times to come,” Barber said.

Of course the board had extensive discussion and numerous presentations on the budget before the July 16 vote.

“This is Tallahassee’s plan for the district,” Barber said.

District spokesman Randy Smith said there were in fact many board discussions of the budget before the vote.

Smith said that any changes would have to be made quickly because the district faces an August 4 deadline to send the adopted tax rate to the tax collectors of the 16 counties it serves. The rate could yet be dropped during budget hearings scheduled for September, however.

Cornell said such decisions are sometimes based as much on politics as sound policy.

“In the political picture it’s always an issue what people are running for,” he said. “The Governor wants to be a Senator.”

John Cassani, chairman of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council, said the entire tax issue should be placed in context.

“You’ve got to remember what Rick Scott did when he took office,” he said. “He eviscerated the water management districts. I think the district is probably not operating at the level it ought to be.”

Cornell recalled this year the Governor actually recommended the Legislature send $150 million in state funds to the district, an amount the Legislature hacked back to closer to $80 million.

“So you’d think he’d support the vote,” he said.

The district has adopted the rollback rate, the property tax rate that produces the same revenue as the previous year, every year since 2011. In that time the district budget has dropped from $1.5 billion to $622 million.

Smith couldn’t say whether board members had heard from the Governor’s office, but said contact between Tallahassee and the district is routine.

“It’s hard for me to speculate (on who’s pushing the re-vote),” Cornell said. “I just wish there wasn’t any second-guessing.”

Read 1606 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 July 2015 14:17

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