Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Basin Boards in the First Place?

Well ... today, June 1, 2011, was the first day since the Southwest Florida Water Management District was first created in 1961 that there are no basin board members serving the taxpayers within the southwest district.  Fifty years.  Why the SWFWMD Governing Board made this decision is a puzzlement because basin boards have always been so important to those who stand for insuring their water management taxes would not be spent outside their basin and would be levied by themselves, private citizens who live there and know why those taxes are needed.  Real republican values. 
All that is changed now by the simple, unannounced, perhaps illegal adoption of a resolution by the SWFWMD Governing Board.  Exactly one week ago today on May 24 during an advertised meeting, the governing board, with nothing on the agenda to indicate it was coming, summarily disbanded its seven basin boards and dismissed over 40 board members associated with them.  It would be effective in seven days at midnight, May 31st … last night!
The conversation had been in the mill for some time, we’re told, but few if any basin board members knew it was actually going to happen when it did.  And, it seems, still fewer knew why, except that it was needed to cut back on staff time.  The word I have heard over and over about what happened is, "shock".

I received an email today from a basin board member in which he describes the call he received today (June 1) from the Governor's office.  Here's the written message:

I got an interesting (ie courtesy) call from the Governor's office just a few minutes ago. A young lady (at least that was my speculation) called to let me know that "the Southwest Florida Water Management District has decided not to have anymore basin boards so of course, the Governor will no longer be making basin board appointments". I thought about giving her my thoughts on the issue but I could tell that she likely didn't know a basin board from a wall board so why waste my breath. I did tell her that I had been following the demise of the basin boards to the extent that it was discussed in a public forum. She didn't get that either so I just said thanks for your call.

Keep up the good work,

Since the reasons why basin boards were created in the first place are most likely suffering from the wear and dust of time ("heifer dust"?), it may be worth revisiting just why they were considered so important in the first place.  One thing is certain.  They were certainly considered important enough at one time  to be put into law (1961) and remained important enough to have survived 50 sessions of the volatile Florida Legislature, one of the most unpredictable bodies in the world.  So it is not unreasonable to ask why they were disbanded so quickly without any public notice, and without any opportunity for the residents of the basins to be told why.  Basin residents have been left only to wonder what happened and why their basin taxes will now be levied by the District Governing Board instead of their neighbors. 

All the concern about who is levying taxes and where the money is being spent is apparently no longer operative.  It’s the Republicans who did it.  I'm a Republican, and it was a wrong thing to do.

SWFWMD was created in 1960 after Hurricane Donna swept across southwest Florida, not a particularly violent storm but a very wet one.  Major flooding was caused on four primary rivers in the area resulting in major damage: the Oklawaha River to the north, the Withlacoochee River further south, the Hillsborough River, affecting downtown Tampa, and the Peace River which starts in the Green Swamp east of Tampa and drains south through four counties to discharge into Charlotte Harbor.
Using the model represented by the Central and Southern Flood Control District (now called the South Florida Water Management District) which covered some 19 counties in south Florida including the Everglades and the upper third of the St. Johns River, SWFWMD was created to be the sponsor of a local federal flood control project.  The project in southwest Florida would be called the Four River Basins, Florida Project.

Based upon flood control concepts in place at the time, the project designed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a number of major structures and flood detention areas on all four of the rivers of the region.  The plan was to prevent a repeat of the '61 disaster using structural means.  (This was before The Greening of America  published in 1970 by Charles A. Reich and before Silent Spring published in 1960 by Rachel Carson had gained national prominence)  All of the associated infrastructure represented major costs.  Although the federal program determined that the Corps of Engineers would build it and the federal government would pay for most of it, the balance would have to be paid by the local sponsor.   That responsibility would be 17% of the construction cost, as I recall, and 100% of the cost of the land upon which to build it. 
Given this scenario, the legislature during its 1961 session took a number of actions germane to where we are today.  The statute creating SWFWMD (Chapter 61-691, Laws of Florida) would:
  1. Create the district consisting of 16 counties including parts of Levy and Marion Counties to the north, Sumter and Polk to the east and Charlotte to the south, 10,000 square miles.  An area the size of Vermont, as Dale Twachtmann would say, one of the District's first Executive Directors;
  2. Establish a Governing Board of 9 members to direct the affairs of the district;
  3. Authorize the Governing Board to levy a property tax to pay for its expenses.  (This was before the 1968 revision to the Florida Constitution which afterward required a referendum of the affected voters to approve any additional levy of property taxes.
  4. Authorized creation of basin boards. 
The act did more than this obviously but this is what is most significant today.
Briefly put, community leaders involved in how the district was going to pay for its operations and the local share of the federal project were concerned about who was going to pay for what.  The Hillsborough River flows directly through downtown Tampa.  Major flooding there in 1960 and in the future could mean unheard of damages and loss of life without major, costly protection.  The non-federal share of constructing the planned, massive project would have to be shared by everyone in the 16-county district unless a way could be found to assure the property owners in another basin would not be taxed to pay for the project in the Hillsborough River Basin. 
It was a thought that goes back to the very foundations of the country.  People should not be taxed for purposes that do not serve their interests, or by people not lawfully representative of those being taxed.  Granted, there were ample examples existing where taxes were being levied by people not living in the area where they were being collected or spent.  Nevertheless, this was an opportunity to exercise the principle, to insure control remained close to the people, and it worked.  The tax, the creation of the district, and the establishment of a local sponsor for a critically important flood control project gained public support and approval, and the rest is a 50-year history of hundreds of successful and necessary projects being completed for people and being paid for by those same people.

This is the same reason there are five water management districts today instead of one statewide.  It's because the residents of south Florida were not enchanted with having to help cover the cost of this expensive new project in the Tampa Bay area and vice versa.  Similarly,  the folks in north Florida obviously would not relish the thought of paying for either the Tampa or the south Florida projects.
So the question remains, why did the governing board toss 50 years of principle out the window so fast and so secretively without reasonale public notice or any opportunity for those affected to know why before it was done?  Again, the idea that it was needed to save a few bucks worth of staff time is laughable.  The reason is as clear as a blue Florida sky after a rainstorm.  It appears to be part of a larger scheme to gain control of the funding capacity of the five water management districts, not to rein in their spending but to wrest control of their taxing authority and give it to Tallahassee for state purposes despite constitutional prohibitions to the contrary.  It's becoming pretty clear.  Many lawsuits have been filed over just such nonsense and this may be no exception.  The plot continues to thicken with every session and with each new legislative leadership that thinks it has found a stupid mother goose sitting on a golden egg.

 Next: What would be the potential consequences if the decision to disband the basin boards was not accomplished according to law?

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