Friday, July 22, 2011

SWFWMD to Lobby the Legislature to Abolish the Basin Boards?

One day after the governing board passed Resolution 11-10, officially dismantling its basin boards that had been in existence for 50 years and firing 30 basin board members, the district’s general counsel was reviewing a proposal to change the law in order to make it permanent.
If you had any doubt about what the future could hold for the basin boards, a unique and valuable feature of SWFWMD, you won’t after reading the proposed change to the law shown below.  See the bolded, underlined portions for the proposed language in red.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Letter to SWFWMD Chairman Senft

July15, 2011

Dear Chairman Senft,

I have been unable to locate where the agenda has been published for the July 26 meeting of the governing board which is less than 10 days from now.  By cc of this to Bill Bilenky and Lou Kavouras, perhaps they can help me find it.  If it’s on SWFWMD’s website, it’s not where it would be normally.

My interest is whether there will be a discussion relating to the basin boards or how the governing board intends to move forward without them.  My guess is that the governing board will need to make some decisions to guide staff on how it wants to proceed and, obviously, I and others would be very interested in those discussions.

During the board’s discussion on June 28 when it abandoned the basin boards and discharged their members, the rationale seemed to be based upon several factors.  First, of course, was the “mandate … from Tallahassee” that the boards be dismantled;  second, was that the governing board had no choice; third, was that getting rid of the basin boards would relieve the staff of having to deal with them and save the district about $350,000 to $400,000 a year; fourth, was that the governor would not make the 31 board appointments because it was too much trouble; and fifth, the “local input” could be maintained by having a committee of the governing board meet separately to receive that local input and bring recommendations back to the main board, or have a committee of private citizens review the budget and make recommendations back to the governing board.

The following thoughts are shared by a number of folks with whom I’ve spoken.

Friday, July 8, 2011

SWFWMD Governing Board's Shameful $300,000,000 Tax Grab From Basin Boards

Sandspur's "Letter to the Editor" shown below was sent to major newspapers in the SWFWMD region last Wed., 7.6.11.  So far it has been published by the:
Dear Editor,
In the interest of “efficiency” and at the direction of Governor Rick Scott, the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District has summarily disbanded its Basin Boards.  It was done with little notice or justification even though it could have enormous implications for who is now going to levy water management basin taxes on your property and on what they might be spent.
The district had eight of these boards before they were dismantled last month, probably without your knowledge.  Board members were essentially told they would no longer be needed because decisions were now going to be made by the Governing Board, a board controlled by the Governor, the secretary of DEP and the back-door whims of a largely disconnected legislature.  In a word, Tallahassee.
Basin Boards were important to your interests.
For 50 years, they allowed the fundamentally important decision to levy a property tax on landowners for water management purposes to be made at the lowest possible level of government within designated sub-taxing districts roughly based upon river watershed boundaries. 
Board members were private individuals, landowners who knew they would bear the brunt of their own taxing decisions and who were personally familiar with the need for each project they funded, most of the time in close coordination with local city and county commissions. 
They were, more often than not, one of your neighbors or at least someone with whom you would feel comfortable sharing your opinions because they were from your community, not from another city or county far from where you live like Tallahassee.
You, the taxpayer, knew who levied the taxes, for what purposes they were levied, and that they would be spent to benefit only your basin.
Taxes levied by the Manasota Basin Board, for example, could only be spent for purposes benefitting the Manasota basin which consists of Manatee and Sarasota counties.   Those levied within the Peace River basin could only be spent for Peace River basin purposes, and so on.
Meetings were held locally in your community.
No more.  After 50 years, the Boards were deemed inefficient and their members fired for being an unneccessary burden to the process, an enormously ill advised decision.
Although basin reserves currently on hand will be spent within the basins from which they were derived and for their original project purposes, in two or three years those funds will be gone.  It’s at that point that you should have deep concerns.
Basin tax dollars from Manatee and Sarasota counties will then be available for projects in Tampa, St. Petersburg or Polk County.
Incredibly, this shameful tax grab means an estimated $300,000,000 the basins would potentially have produced through 2030 for their own basin water projects are now shifted to control by the Brooksville governing board to be spent wherever it decides.
Even now, Polk County has planned a $150,000,000 (probably $200,000,000 by the time it’s completed) water supply project the district plans to help build.  Recently, the governor and legislature took action to reduce the district’s budget by 36%.  It would be very difficult for the district to partner with Polk County and its communities to build the project without the tax levies previously controlled by the basin boards.  It will now, however, be very possible because of the dismantling of the basin boards and the Governing Board’s blatant tax grab. 
All new project proposals will now be tossed into one bag.  Proponents will have to compete with others district-wide for funding.  Small cities and counties will not be able to compete with more powerful entities like Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties which are statutorily guaranteed two representatives on the board each.
If this disturbs you, communicate with your legislators, county commissions and district governing board members.  Ask why the basin boards were dismantled and members fired without adequate notice to the affected public. 
Ask them to re-establish the basin boards (accept no substitutes) and to give you adequate notice when and where the decision will be discussed.  Then be there and let your voice be heard.
Where to find contact information:
Sonny Vergara was Executive Director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, St. Johns River Water Management District and Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority.  Retired, he now writes a political blog, and lives in Brooksville, Florida.

Citrus Chronicle: Cap Threatens State’s Water Resources

Cap threatens state’s water resources
By Chronicle Editorial Board
THE ISSUE: Water management district tax cap.
OUR OPINION: Penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Reversing four decades of measures to protect the environment and promote smart growth, recent legislation passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott has shown a disdain for the environment and growth management in the name of job creation.
Before a banner proclaiming, “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” Gov. Scott publicly signed a bill recently that caps property taxes to the state’s five water management districts. Contending that the cap will help fulfill his campaign pledge to stimulate the economy and create jobs, it promises instead to lead the state down a dangerous path of further imperiling Florida’s water resources.
The capping of property taxes to the state’s water districts may have political appeal to a public wearied by a stagnant economy and those voters who called for radical change in the last general election. Nevertheless, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish, since the tax cap’s minuscule savings to individual property owners will be at the costly expense of Florida’s lakes, rivers and estuaries.
Florida’s tourism, fishing and recreational industries depend on the water quality of thousands of miles of rivers, hundreds of thousands of acres of lakes and numerous coastal estuaries. By diminishing the ability of the water management districts to protect the state’s water resources, the tax cap’s illusory goal of stimulating the economy promises to produce the opposite effect as the pollution of our water resources becomes more pronounced and widespread.
Of the cap’s estimated $210 million in tax savings for property owners statewide, the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s 36 percent budget reduction constitutes the lion’s share among the five water management districts. The resultant reduction in funds and staffing levels will have a significant impact on Citrus County’s urgently needed water quality projects.
The Coastal Rivers Basin Board and Withlacoochee River Basin Board that served as conduits for determining funding priorities for Citrus County’s water quality projects have been axed. Community initiatives such as Three Sisters Springs will, in all probability, be a thing of the past. And sewerage, storm water runoff, surface water management and habitat restoration projects will be fewer and farther in between.
With the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s tax cap translating to a nominal annual savings of approximately $19 for the average Citrus County property owner, the benefit derived certainly does not outweigh the risk to our environment and our quality of life.
Rather than adopting pound-foolish measures such as the water districts’ tax cap to revive the state’s economy, the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Scott would better serve Florida by embracing the Florida Constitution that wisely decrees, “It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty.”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Were the basin boards killed because J. D. Alexander wants you to pay for Polk County’s water supply?

J. D. Alexander
It’s not as farfetched as one might think.  Consider this. 
J. D. Alexander inherited a lot of land and has a lot of family business interests in central Florida.  Everyone knows this.  Everyone also knows he has worked his legislative position to further those interests by trying to bring a major expressway (The Heartland Parkway) up from Naples to Polk County, by getting USF to start a branch University in Polk County (as the Senate’s budget czar, he personally squeezed $35,000,000  out of a state that is broke for the school this past legislative session.  Last year, he squeezed $46 million out of the state but then-governor Crist vetoed it.), and finally, he’s had much to do with the state’s support of SunRail (now inexplicably but nevertheless officially blessed by Governor Scott) to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and buying interests in companies that stand to benefit substantially by the CSX rail hub to be located in Polk.
Now, consider the little game played with Dave Moore, SWFWMD former executive director a couple of years ago when Rhonda Storms held up his senate re-confirmation.  I’ve been told (but have not confirmed) that she did it at JD’s request.  The question would be, why?
Rhoda Storms

Seems Dave was resisting JD’s interest in getting SWFWMD to support creation of a “regional” water supply authority consisting of just one county – Polk.  Despite the fact that a single county somehow fails as any possible definition for “regional,” JD wanted it declared so by the district and DEP anyway in order to qualify it for water management grant funding, funding that is derived from the property taxes you and I pay to the district.  Rhonda’s little ploy for JD apparently got the district’s attention.
After Dave’s appointment as executive director was finally re-confirmed by the Senate during the following legislative session (2011), the district was already well on its way toward completing its Regional Water Supply Plan, Heartland Planning Region (January 2011). 
This report describes plainly why getting new water for Polk County is so critical.  If it is to gain success from becoming the hugely important geographic epicenter where all paths between the major urban/commercial centers of Tampa Bay and Disney-Orlando will cross, it needs to find new water.  All of its “local” sources are reportedly tapped out including such alternatives as groundwater, surface water, sea water (from Tampa Bay), reuse water, and conservation.  Even buying water from Tampa Bay Water was given serious consideration.  
Obviously, finding new water would not only benefit Polk County but certain major land owners and families with many business interests there as well.
Thus, the report offers an extraordinary plan by which water could be imported from across district boundaries from an area still within Polk, I am told, but not within SWFWMD.  It would come from the “lower aquifer” located in eastern Polk County and under the jurisdiction of the South Florida Water Management District.
I am also told, the new director at SFWMD, Melissa Meeker, has already signed off on the concept.  One can only assume that she believes the water is there and the withdrawals will not negatively impact any nearby wetlands, lakes, springs, rivers or existing legal users, right?
On page 143 of the report, the capital cost of this massive project, which would provide water to multiple communities within Polk County, is estimated to be around $150,000,000. 
On page 147 of the report, the discussion turns to how the district would propose to pay for all its planned water needs, including the plan for Polk.  Significantly, the basin boards are listed as a primary source of funding for the district’s entire planned need of $1.2 billion for new water projects through 2030.  Of this amount the basins would provide $300,000,000.
J. D. Alexander is a master at bringing big things to Polk County.  Whether or not they benefit him personally is for others to be concerned about but for whatever reason he’s been very successful at doing it.  Bringing in a water supply that would meet the county’s needs for decades, under any circumstance, would be a very smart thing to do.  It’s how to pay for this and any of his other deals that gets bothersome.
In its report, SWFWMD has legitimized Polk County’s serious need for water and developed a plan for getting it.  But how does one get the property taxes controlled by the basin boards from counties like Manatee, Sarasota , Charlotte, Desoto, Highlands, Hardee, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Marion, lake, Levy, Citrus, and Sumter to pay for Polk County’s water supply?  Without the basins' tax revenues, SWFWMD would have great difficulty in doing what JD seeks, i.e., have the district pay for the lion's share of the Polk water project.
The answer is, it ain’t likely to happen.  The thought that a basin board for the Withlacoochee River, for example, would levy taxes upon its land owners to build Polk County a water supply is so far from reasonable it’s laughable.
But, what if the basin boards were disbanded in the interest of efficiency?  SWFWMD, like every other government agency, is under pressure to tighten up.  Lean up.  Reduce size.  Get back to its “core mission,” is the current favored mantra.  Frankly, the basin Boards are not the most efficient way to run a government, but if efficiency was the only acceptable criteria we would not be a republic operating as a representative democracy theoretically controlled by the will of 140,000,000 registered voters, would we?
Basin Boards may not be efficient but they are important. For 50 years, they have allowed the decision to tax property owners to take place at the lowest possible level within specific sub-taxing districts that are roughly based upon river watershed boundaries.  They are comprised of land holders who personally bear the brunt of their own decisions and know intimately the need for each project they fund with the taxes they levy.  And most significantly, the taxes that are levied can only be spent for purposes benefitting the basin from which the money was generated.
But what if the basin boards were rendered non-functional and the governing board had to assume the basins' taxing authority?  Would it be possible? All the governor would need to do is stop making appointments as current members’ terms expired.
If this were to happen, the governing board, which apparently doesn’t suffer the affliction of inefficiency, could declare itself the board of the district's one unified basin.  It would then be able to levy the basin tax uniformly across all the counties of the district without regard to any specific river watershed or county boundary as it does now for the district’s general operations.
So, here’s a theory.  Did JD get with the governor or his minions and convince them the basin boards were inefficient, persuade them to not appoint any new members and thus force the district to disband the basin boards and assume their taxing authority, thereby freeing up control of $300,000,000 to build Polk a water supply that would not have been possible otherwise?
My guess is, not in so many words.  I don’t think any of them are actually that smart.  But it could have evolved that way and probably did.  What was once so impossible is,in fact, now very much possible because this is exactly what is happening.
The Basin Boards of SWFWMD should not have been dismantled.  But if they have to be, why did the district do it so unannounced and so quickly?  Why didn’t they give the public reasonable notice, as required by law, informing them that the board members from their basin were going to be fired and that the taxing authority of their basin would be wrested away from them and over taken by a regional board that gets its marching orders from Tallahassee?
If all this bothers you, do something about it.
Communicate with your legislators, county commissions and the district governing board members.  Write emails and letters.  If you are fortunate enough to have a governing board member living in your area, call him or her and express your convictions.  Ask why it was done so secretively, quickly and without letting the affected public know or have voice in the matter.  Then ask them to re-establish the basin boards, this time with appropriate and reasonable notice.  And if there is going to be a meeting where this is going to be discussed by the governing board, ask them to let you know personally when and where.  Then be there and let your voice be heard.