Water management district asks governor to ax bill that cuts budget

05/24/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The agencies that oversee regional water resources may soon be in a bind if Governor Rick Scott signs a new law limiting how much they can collect from property taxes. Today the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as SWFWMD, opted to let the governor know how they feel about the measure.

"I make a motion that we send the governor a letter asking to veto the legislation for the reasons stated here, and somebody needs to put that on paper."

That was SWFWMD board member Neil Combee. His colleagues on the board unanimously agreed. The governor touts squeezing taxes to a bare minimum as a surefire way to rev up the economy by giving consumers more spending power and attracting job-creating businesses. But board member Paul Senft said limiting the agency's ability to manage such a critical natural resource will hurt everyone in the long term.

"This is an unintended consequence that we will be restricted from responding to the needs, that we need to create jobs and growth and development that he desires. We will not be able to realize if this limitation is maintained."

Senate Bill 2142 removes the governor from oversight of the state’s five water management districts. SWFWMD spokesperson Robin Felix said it also curbs water districts’ ability to raise funds.

"The cap was different for all five of the state water management districts. So for this district the cap was set at about $107 million. So that is the absolute cap that we can now collect. For this coming year that's going to be about a 36 percent budget reduction for the Southwest Florida Management District."

According to today’s budget presentation, which acting SWFWMD deputy executive director Kurt Fritsch delivered, the agency also faces a 72 percent reduction in state, federal, and local funding. The agency is currently scrambling to deal with a budget that’s less than two-thirds of what it was. One cost-saving measure the board passed today was one merging the agency’s eight local basin boards. Members on a given basin board, for example, manage funding for water-related projects specific to their locale, for example, the Peace River Basin. Sarasota-area state Representative Ray Pilon, a Republican, wrote legislation that would have strengthened local control of project funding.

"Basin boards have appointees, governmental appointees and there are about 31 of them so trying to improve efficiency there's a thought that...question was, 'do we really need them?' and in this case currently there are two of those boards that don't have a quorum and can't be constituted. So they disburse local ad valorum tax money for water projects, conservations and so forth so how do we get that done if we don't have these boards being able to vote. My bill would have allowed the governing board in it's whole to act on behalf of those basin boards and it kept the local millage intact as well."

Such projects include reclaimed water or stormwater management. Pilon said he had hoped the SWFWMD board would have provided more room for local control in today’s resolution, but he also knows they’re strapped for time as they whittle down the district’s budget.

"Perhaps they could have gone to see how they're going to meet the local needs first and come up with a plan before they made this major policy shift because right now the reserves that are in there, the money that is allocated to those basin boards still has to be spent. So I think they could have had a little more breathing room, but they're under the gun, I understand, because of budget meetings and you saw the schedule that came up on how they have to do their budget so I understand that. We'll go back next year and we'll try to make it a little better."

One thing that is maintained in the agency’s budget is $40 million dollars in what’s called cooperative funding, which acts as matching dollars to help the district share costs with local governments. Felix said that number has shrunken drastically since the economy peaked, but so have the budgets of local governments.

"We expect... over the last several years we've had fewer projects coming in for cooperative funding because local governments don't have as much money but I think we feel that $40 million set aside for cooperative funding should be adequate to be able to fund those projects in the upcoming year."

Board members plan to send the letter asking Scott to veto SB 2142 by today. They expressed concern that he may sign the bill as early as Thursday.

Previous WMNF news coverage of SWFWMD

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