Water Districts Wring Out $700 Million in Budgets
Around the State
Having kicked sugar and cut up the credit card, water management districts submitted a budget proposal that is $700 million leaner without jeopardizing critical water supply and Everglades restoration efforts, state officials and a key environment group said Wednesday.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said decisions to shelve, at least temporarily, a $190 million land purchase from U.S. Sugar and delay the sale of $100 million in bonds to pay for further land acquisition, will allow the state's five water management districts to continue their core missions while responding to tough budget times.
"The districts will continue to manage and protect Florida's water," Vinyard said. "They will still spend more than $1 billion in the coming year for that protection."
A frequent critic, the Everglades Foundation, agreed with Vinyard's assessment, saying Wednesday it was "pleasantly surprised" by the budget proposal that appears to refocus agencies that during better times had gotten a little fat.
"We've certainly been quick to criticize," said CEO Kirk Fordham. "But it is also our duty as advocates and folks that are fairly independent of the government agencies we work with to point out when they have accomplished something that is worthy of praise."
Not all environmental advocates agree. Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida executive director, said that while the proposed budgets appear to spare Everglades and other high-priority projects for the upcoming year, there's concern about longer term needs that may not be met, including increased storage and water quality efforts.
The cuts serve only the purpose of "allowing politicians to claim tax cuts," Draper said in a statement. "The agencies involved and the governor are not being completely candid in telling the public how these cuts will affect water supply, environmental protection and Everglades restoration."
To reduce costs, Vinyard said the districts will stop buying additional land parcels and not take on any more debt. The reductions were aided by the fact that a handful of expensive projects are nearing completion, thus requiring fewer financial resources.
The districts will also roll back lucrative compensation packages. In addition to the $700 million in proposed reductions, Gov. Rick Scott rejected another $2.4 million in salaries, benefits, and retirement incentives that were included in the water management district budget proposal.
Vinyard said the state would also look at its land-buying programs to ensure that only the most valuable purchases are made with the public's dime.
"We are looking for environmental projects that give the most bang for the buck," Vinyard said.
Prodded by Gov. Rick Scott for tax cuts, lawmakers earlier this year passed SB 2142. Among myriad changes, the bill reduced by about 30 percent the property taxes districts could levy in the coming fiscal year. The one-time reduction will reduce collections by $211 million. The bill also gives lawmakers authority over how much the districts can raise through taxes in the future.
The South Florida Water Management District, the largest of the five districts, will experience the brunt of the cuts. Of the $700 million in savings, more than $500 million will come from the district, which is responsible for Everglades restoration efforts as well as providing water to teeming South Florida.
Despite the budget reduction, which includes $120 million in lost tax revenue, South Florida's executive director said restoration efforts will move forward as planned, with no delays anticipated.
"You will not see a bump in the road," Meeker said.
Fordham said critical Everglades projects begun a few years ago are coming to conclusion and will come on line despite the budget reductions. He gave Meeker much of the credit.
"We have been surprised at how Melissa Meeker and her team have been able to squeeze inefficiencies out of the water management district budget without jeopardizing key science and planning personnel and without jeopardizing a number of projects on the Everglades restoration front that we have considered priorities over the last several years," Fordham said.