Water Panel Members: Don't Cut WMDs

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 24, 2011 --

Already hit by falling property values that have cut revenues dramatically, water management districts are in no position to take further cuts proposed by Gov. Rick Scott, the chairman of a select House panel on water policy said Thursday.

Rep. Trudi Williams, the chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Water Policy, said the water districts are struggling even to maintain basic flood control programs as revenues plummet with the price of land.

Scott’s proposed 25 percent cut in their revenue on top of that would cripple many of the agencies, including the South Florida Water Management District, the agency tasked with Everglades restoration and water supply and storage for teeming South Florida, critics of the plan have said.

But the Legislature’s hands may be tied, a lack of authority that Williams said was made apparent during Gov. Charlie Crist’s deal to have the South Florida district purchase land from U.S. Sugar for Everglades restoration, a plan that many lawmakers didn’t like.

“The Legislature has no point of entry in any of the dealings of the water management districts,” said Williams, R-Fort Myers. “All we can do is make recommendations to the governor and say ‘Governor, reducing their budget by 25 percent is unrealistic given that their revenues have dropped 60 percent.”

Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, urged lawmakers to do what they could to dissuade Scott from enacting his proposal, which was included in more than 800 pages of documents accompanying his suggested budget, released in early February. Scott’s plan is to trim the districts’ property tax levies for the next two fiscal years in an effort to save taxpayers millions.

“They cannot afford to take a 25 percent cut and carry out their responsibilities,” Draper said. “Just their flood control efforts take up more than 75 percent of their budget.”

Concerns over the water management district cuts were made throughout the panel’s meeting, but panelists also approved a set of preliminary recommendations to address both water quality and water quantity issues while trying to nail down an accurate cost estimate of tougher federal water quality standards.

The pending federal standards drafted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, have been the focus of intense debate. Environmental groups have lauded the federal assistance in trying to strengthen state water pollution standards, while state officials have complained the standards are unworkable and expensive. The business community has also opposed the federal standards.

There’s wide disagreement over how much the proposal would cost an average homeowner, from just a few dollars to several hundred.

Officials in the Scott administration didn’t appear before the committee on Thursday to defend the proposed cuts to the water districts.

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