Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Real Reasons Behind the Cuts for Water Agencies

The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune yesterday.  (Here’s the link to the original article:
It’s noteworthy because Reporter Zac Anderson touches upon reasons why regulatory agencies are coming under attack, not because taxes need to be reduced in order to create significantly more jobs but because regulated industries are using a weak economy as a ruse to give them free reign to harvest Florida’s natural bounty for their own profit.
Jobs and strengthened businesses are important but not at the risk of destroying the essence and future of natural Florida.  Enlightened concern and smart environmental protection over the last forty years has kept Florida from being reduced to a polluted, dredged and filled, nest-fouled mess where no one would want to live.
See the originally published article in its entirety by following the above link.  Here’s what Anderson wrote:

Big cuts, smaller projects ahead for water agencies
Published: Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 9:45 p.m.
The biggest shake-up in state water policy in decades is unfolding this summer as the agencies that supervise everything from drinking water supplies for 19 million Floridians to flood control and environmental restoration undergo unprecedented budget cuts.
The $210 million cut will result in less environmental monitoring, the elimination of conservation land purchases and fewer drinking water projects like the new $128 million water treatment plant and reservoir along the Peace River that supplies Sarasota County and the surrounding region, according to preliminary budget proposals approved this month.
Critics say politicians and businesses hostile to the water management districts' regulatory and environmental policies are using the lagging economy as an excuse to roll back the agencies' power.
State lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott pitched the cuts as tax relief and an effort to rein in agencies that have seen significant budget growth.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District alone -- which governs 16 counties in the Tampa Bay region through Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte -- is slashing $119 million in annual spending.
The 44 percent budget reduction is the largest of any water district in the state.
Lawmakers accuse the water districts of growing fat on property tax money during the real estate boom -- amassing large reserves and bloated staffing.
In Southwest Florida, the district's annual service budget nearly doubled between 2002 and 2008, peaking at $390 million and 897 employees.
The proposed 2012 budget is back to 1999 levels: $161 million and 796 employees.
State leaders ordered the largest cuts to district programs considered inflated or nonessential, including land acquisition, regulatory staff and community outreach.
The owner of a $150,000 house will save $13 a year in reduced property taxes in Sarasota and Manatee Counties and $17 in Charlotte County.
"This property tax cut allows families and businesses to use more of their hard-earned money in the way they see best, rather than having to send it to a government agency," Scott said in a recent statement.
Critics say the cuts are short-sighted.
"Thirteen dollars is a pizza from Sam's Club; it's relatively meaningless for the individual. But when you add it all up it's of huge importance to the future of this state," said former Southwest water district executive director Sonny Vergara.
The cuts affect every district program, including $33 million less for drinking water development in Southwest Florida, $14 million less for water quality efforts and $6 million less for flood protection.
But some programs are being hit harder than others.
Too much land?
Florida had the most aggressive land conservation program in the country prior to the economic downturn.
Water district leaders managed the purchases with an eye toward protecting sensitive water bodies.
Since 1991, the Southwest district has spent $114 million on 73,000 acres of land in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte Counties.
The money went to purchase property along Charlotte Harbor, the Myakka River, Peace River, Tampa Bay, Shell Creek and the Little Manatee River.
A recent order by the Department of Environmental Protection spelled out the new policy: "No new land purchases."
The DEP memo distributed to water district leaders by Scott's administration instructed that: "Prioritizing our spending requires us to take a much harder look at whether the dollars we spend are congruent with the core mission of the districts."
"We have to go back to the basics," water district board member Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County home builder, said during a recent meeting in arguing that flood control and developing drinking water supplies should take precedence over land conservation.
Local governments that were hoping to partner with the water district on conservation purchases are re-evaluating their plans, including proposals in Manatee County to buy land along the Manatee River and Braden River.
Pulling back too much on land acquisition and environmental restoration is a mistake, said Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton.
The real estate lull has taken the pressure off developing drinking water supplies. Money could be diverted to conservation and fixing impaired water bodies without raising taxes.
Such projects improve water quality, a core mission of the district, Thaxton said.
One local example is Cow Pen Slough east of Venice, which was dredged and channelized years ago to drain agricultural land, destroying wetlands and flooding Dona Bay downstream with too much fresh water.
Sarasota County recently secured $1.8 million from the water district to restore the wetlands but the money was eliminated because of the budget crunch.
Lobbying by county leaders restored the funds, but similar grants will be in short supply going forward.
Thaxton compared environmental restoration to paying off debts.
"We spent 20 years behind the eight ball," Thaxton said. "Now we have some extra money in the account and we should use this opportunity to wipe out our debt and make sure we don't go back into debt when demand returns."
Also included in the DEP memo was a directive to cut the water district's regulatory staff, which is responsible for permitting drinking water supplies and impacts to wetlands.
"Taxpayers and the regulated community become frustrated when government grows in size and scope," Scott's administration wrote.
Such language has environmental advocates calling the water district cuts a backdoor deregulation strategy that will allow allow harmful development practices to flourish.
In the Tampa Bay area alone, the Southwest Florida Water Management District spent more than $300 million in recent years on alternative drinking water methods such as desalination and a new reservoir, Vergara said.
The spending was necessary because regulators allowed excessive groundwater pumping, depressurizing the aquifer and leading to an epidemic of sinkholes, dying wetlands and salt water intrusion.
With deregulation, Vergara fears developers will again take too much groundwater.
Nearly 20 percent of the district's environment resource permitting staff is being cut this year.
Some of the cuts are understandable because permit applications have dropped, Vergara said. But developers have long put pressure on the district to loosen standards.
"You have people who have been regulated for years and years, who really dislike being regulated, and they're taking this opportunity to cut the districts' knees out," he said.


  1. I was one of the 32 people let go from the Southwest Florida Water Management District this week. I had been with the WMD for 15 years. I was told to get my purse, car keys, and my District badge and follow one of my department managers to an office. I could not get any of my other personal items at that time and I was not going to be allowed to return to my desk until some time that I could arrange for after hours. This is what I got after 15 years.

    Many will know me if I say, PUBLIC RECORDS. I was always proud to say I worked there. I looked forward to telling people what the WMD stood for and its mission. I look back on my career there and have memories of mostly very dedicated staff who really care or cared about the mission of the District. The budget cuts at the WMD save the average homeowner $20 on their annual property taxes. However, after all my many late hours and early mornings and dedication to the District, I now find myself looking for another job.

    I wish all those left there that they remain dedicated to the reason the water management exists, despite the much less money that the District will have to work with.

    And a final note, one of my coworkers stood up the other day at a meeting of about 300 District employees and said it best. He said that the general public, and apparantly the legislature, and the Governor is not informed as to what the WMD actual does and its importance. What a shame.

    We all need water to drink. The birds and animals all need water to survive.

  2. Here! Here! It is sacred work... although I had suspected and had cleaned out my belongs (10 years of my own reference materials - and some from my years at DEP as well - and personal items). I have no regrets (except this is happening to dedicated people for completely unnecessary reasons) and remain dedicated to the cause. I made many wonderful friends and did good work. I'm proud of my years there...

  3. I was informed this week by a SWFWMD staff member that a colleague who was involved in a SWFWMD project in which I participated was no longer at the district. As an employee of another state agency, I've worked many years with various SWFWMD personnel, and I have always been impressed by their professionalism, their dedication to their job, the district, and the goals of this agency, and their desire to work toward finding solutions that address the state's water issues. I have been proud to be associated with these colleagues, and I am embarrassed to hear that they have been treated so disrespectfully. These are good people who have done good work, and we have been extremely fortunate in southwest Florida to have benefited from their dedication to this region. There is no savings to the state involved in these firings, no benefit to the state whatsoever. This move weakens our state, and its ability to manage its resources wisely.
    Please - someone post what can be done - by citizens, by members of other state agencies - to stop this trend, and to help get these folks their jobs back.

  4. can we fire the gov'nr for his incompetance? The ignorant should not be in power. too much damage has already been done and we have 3 more years.

  5. Vote REPUBLICAN again.