Fear of Water District Plan Impact on Everglades

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida


In a move that has startled and concerned environmental groups, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed cutting the budgets of water management districts and wants more authority over how the independent taxing districts spend their money.

Some environmentalists fear the plan, if approved by lawmakers, could significantly reduce spending on Everglades restoration and water clean-up efforts in the St. John’s River.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper said the proposal would reduce spending on environmental programs by hundreds of millions of dollars and cost the state high paying jobs.

Included in the roughly $66 billion budget plan Scott released Monday, were provisions that would require the largely autonomous water management districts to get approval before spending money from the taxes paid to them by property owners living within their boundaries.

The South Florida Water Management District, for example, collects about $390 million a year in property taxes from the residents who live in the district. The money is used for flood control, maintenance of the canals and other storm water efforts. A significant portion also goes toward Everglades restoration.

Scott has proposed reducing those taxes by 25 percent for the next two years, a cut that would translate into about $95 million less than the district levied during this current fiscal year. Such a cut would inevitably lead water managers to postpone programs that are more discretionary in nature, such as the district’s long term commitment to re-plumbing the River of Grass.

“The cuts wouldn’t stop them from doing what they have to do,” Draper said. “The thing they would take off the table would be Everglades restoration. That’s our concern.”

Scott has said, essentially just that – that his plan was to have government return to doing what it has to do, and dropping many of the other things it does as unaffordable luxuries.

Draper said the water districts, created in 1972, have become a national model for efficient water management efforts because they do not compete with other state priorities for money. By having their own taxing source, they are also insulated from the political back and forth that happens, especially in tough budget times, and from regional competition.

“They don’t compete with schools and health care for their funding,” Draper said. “That gives the ability to hire scientists to figure how a state of 18 million people gets its water.”

The fact that South Florida pays for its own heavy water management needs without asking rural north Florida residents to pay for it also matters.

Given the fact Florida gets much of its drinking water from rain, storage and retention are key elements of any management plan, Draper said. Such a plan needs land and money to accomplish its task.

South Florida Water Management District officials were still studying the governor’s proposal, said district spokesman Gabe Margasak.

“In light of recent budgetary challenges and with a strong commitment to fiscal accountability, the District has already taken proactive steps over the last three years to focus on its core mission, reduce administrative spending and implement operational efficiencies,” Margasak said.”

Officials in Scott’s office didn’t return a call for comment.

Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Water Policy, said she has not had time to delve deeply into the fiscal impact of Scott’s proposal, but said she would support it only if it allows the districts to manageme lands that they have and provide the services for which they were created.

“I have no problem with the state not buying any more land for a few years, but (the districts) have to be able to do their jobs,” Williams said.

Williams said the cuts would have a dramatic impact in Northwest Florida, which already levies a lower tax than other parts of the state. Draper said he fears the governor’s proposal takes none of that into account.

“I don’t think he’s given the impact of this a single bit of thought,” Draper said. “It’s simply taking an ax to the budget.”

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