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.

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