Monday, August 1, 2011

Core Mission? Really?

It's been a long time since I've voluntarily sat through three straight hours of a governing board meeting at SWFWMD as I did last Thursday.  In most respects, not much has changed.  The staff still struggles to get a lay board of directors to understand the why, how, when, how much and complexity of managing water in this state.  This is a normal but formidable task, not made any easier by covert motivations that are inconsistent with the original reasons the districts were created.  And that's what has changed.  The motivations of some board members seem to be focused less upon guiding the agency toward carrying out its statutory duties and more upon reducing its budget and all that it's doing regardless of the fact that its responsibilities are directed by Florida law.
The stated objective of the governor and his Tallahassee minions is to return the districts to their "core" mission, but it is clear the intent is actually to reduce tax levies and consequently what it is they do. 

The thing about getting the districts back to their “core” responsibilities at first caused me to smile when I first heard it.  Anyone in the business knows that defining such a thing will not be a simple task if even possible.  If there ever was a core mission for the districts, it has long been morphed, transformed, distorted, twisted, obscured, strengthened, widened, narrowed, removed, replaced, obfuscated and expanded to the point that any serious attempt to define it would require a detailed legal review of legislation over the last 40 years and a two-day conference of lawyer-filled panel discussions down in Marco.

While I may have at first smiled, it is irritating that the propagandistic quest for returning the districts to some vague idea of a core mission strongly suggests the districts have been doing things they should not have been doing.  So the concept of "core mission" and why it's the term du jour becomes of interest

Are the Tallahassee-ites really saying there is unauthorized activity being carried out by the districts, or is it something else? Isn't it really just a rather base way to bring about a reduction of their millage rates and their budgets because it's expedient to do so in our present politico-economic environment?  Water management districts have never been well liked no matter how many surveys Honey Rand did for SWFWMD that she claimed suggested otherwise.  They are disliked because they have been charged by the legislature to say no when the interests of the state are in question and despite the power behind the name on the permit application.  Perhaps the unspoken goal is to weaken the beasts by shorting their source of strength, their taxing capability, so the consequences of unrestrained growth can run free.
Neil Combee
 At the meeting last Thursday there was an excellent discussion about water management core mission and how one might figure out what it is.  Board member, Neil Combee, asked if the term was defined anywhere in the laws governing water management districts in Florida.  Interim executive director Bill Bilenky's response to the question was in my opinion as insightful and on-point as one might ever get and deserves to be preserved, written down somewhere for distribution.  I would suggest it be sent first and foremost to the governor, for example, then Herschel Vineyard and Melissa Meeker. Here's the video clip:  (Please forgive the initial blurriness and my amateurish attempts to do something that for the technically challenged turned out to be incredibly complex.)
(Obtained from SWFWMD's streamed Internet video of the meeting)

Carlos Beruff
 The next discussion about core mission was initiated earlier in the meeting by an item relating to a parcel of land called “Flying Eagle.”  Board member Carlos Beruff, hoisting the T-Town banner with energy and obvious conviction (though misguided in my opinion), asked if the staff proposal and recommendations were consistent with the district’s core mission.  Not to bore with detail but the situation can be roughly described as follows:
1.    The district bought the land years ago under the Florida Forever program.

2.    The land was deemed to be a "jewel," one of the most unique opportunities of many to protect environmentally sensitive lands.

3.    The purchase was approved by DEP pursuant to a District resolution requesting Florida Forever funds to be released for the purchase.  DEP reviewed and approved the request . 

4.    The purchase was from the Boy Scouts of America who earlier had constructed facilities on the property and who were now leasing the land back from the district.

5.    Today, however, the buildings need to be substantially refurbished but the BSA wants the district to pay for the repairs.

6.    Staff is willing to support refurbishing the facilities at a cost of about $750K but they also want to provide for other groups and the general public to use them.

7.     Member Beruff questioned if doing so is a core mission of SWFWMD’s.
The response was offered by Kurt Fritsch, interim deputy director for administrative services.  It went straight to the heart of the discussion, how to apply the ill-defined concept of 'core mission' to a very specific action of the district with important public benefits.  Here's how Kurt explained that providing education and related public use facilities on Florida Forever lands are clear statutory responsibilities of the district under the statute which requires not only the acquisition of such lands but their proper management as well:
(Obtained from SWFWMD's streamed Internet video of the meeting)

Member Beruff was not convinced but there was enough support for the project to be maintained in the budget anyway.  For the moment the board will proceed with the project and will, subject to an agreement with the BSA, include the funds in the budget for further consideration.
Bottom line:  I don't think Tallahassee had a clue what it was initiating when it started the campaign to "refocus" the districts on "core mission." 
I have to admit that it does have something of an officious ring about it though, even if won't rationally effectuate cutting district staffs and reducing taxes.  What they will really see perhaps is that the core mission of Florida's water management districts is not necessarily going to mean less.  If they are compelled to "get back to it", the result may be that they will actually be asking for districts to do more because water management responsibilities have evolved, grown and become ever more complex by the laws passed over the last 40 years by Florida's legislators and signed into law by such respected previous governors as Reuben Askew, Bob Martinez, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Charlie Christ. 
The present governor and his nifty new minions may just find that the districts have been directed to do far more than what they were originally directed for some very important reasons, not the least of which was because the legislature wouldn't have to pay for it.  If so, the trick will then be to educate the governor about the consequences for the future of the state if the districts are now told to do less than what they've been doing very well as directed by Florida law.

1 comment:

  1. Right on point Sonny. Our current governor and legislature have virtually no knowledge of what WMD's do other than the fact that they have taxing authority that needs to be reined in. Gutting growth management regs and DCA as well as the WMD's will simply exacerbate the water management problems that already exist in this state.