Former Florida Regulators Want Water Funding Boost
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
A group of 20 former water regulators in Florida is urging Governor Rick Scott to restore funding to the state’s five water management districts, whose budgets have shrunk dramatically under the governor.
“Adequately funding water supply development through water storage projects, alternative water supplies, water conservation programs and reclaimed water projects is vital for a sustainable future,” the former district board members wrote in a letter sent to Scott this week.
Water questions loom large in Florida, where climate change and development are gradually eroding the coastline, enabling saltwater to seep into aquifers and contaminate the state’s water supply. Those conditions, along with this summer’s drought, have sparked concern about how Florida will meet the water demands of its rapidly growing population.
Additionally, Florida’s vast tourism industry largely depends upon the state’s attractive water resources.
“Our state is blessed with incredible freshwater systems and habitats from America’s Everglades to the St. Johns River and from our freshwater springs to the rivers that emerge from the Green Swamp,” the letter said. “Expediting progress on restoration projects means more jobs, more tourism, and more money for our state.”
Water district budgets have been cut by about $700 million, about 40 percent, since Scott arrived in Tallahassee in 2011. That’s partly due to a law passed last year that capped the amount districts could collect in property tax revenue. The legislature lifted the cap this year, but the districts have not expanded their budgets, which Scott is set to soon approve.
Some districts, in fact, have proposed further tax rollbacks. Others have kept the rate the same, but will collect less revenue than last year because local property values have fallen.
The South Florida Water Management District, Florida’s largest district, has proposed cutting $11 million from its current $579 million budget. The plan would eliminate 51 staff positions.
Under the tax rollbacks in the 2012 budget, owners of a $150,000 home in Miami-Dade would pay just $20 less than they would have in 2011, the former board members wrote. “We think the average Floridian would rather pay a little more for water management solutions today than have to pay, for much more expensive projects later.”
Environmental advocates in Florida complain that Scott’s tax-cutting administration has pressured board members to keep rates low. In July, Hans Tanzler, executive director of the St. John’s River Water Management District, said officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) told him not to consider raising the tax, according to the Daytona Beach News Journal.
Although water districts were designed to function independently, state law gives the DEP “general supervisory authority,” and the governor appoints members to the governing boards.
“We collaborate with the water management districts on budgetary issues, water supply and quality issues, land management and other topics,” Patrick Gillespie, a DEP spokesperson, told Stateline in an email.
“At Governor Rick Scott’s direction, the Water Management Districts have worked hard not to raise taxes and increase the burden on Floridians,” he said. “Instead, the Water Management Districts have undertaken cost-saving measures to help sustain them during slow economic times.”