Sunday, September 11, 2011

Grappling With the Sea Change Rippling From Tallahassee

Following is a very enlightening story (see below) by reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver published in today's (9.11.11)  Daytona Beach News Journal.  It's about the fears and purposes of the new era in water management being mandated by Tallahassee. 

It touches on the obviously drastic actions taken to transform the water management districts, particularly the SJRWMD headquartered in Palatka, and the fears of those who are convinced the outcome will not be good.
On the one hand, the largely accepted view is that Florida's water management districts needed to reform themselves to reflect the new economy, and change their alleged regulatory arrogance.  On the other, is the fear that all the good they have done to date managing and protecting the state’s water resources and all that depends upon a sustainable and healthy supply for both human and natural systems could be undone.

Maryam Ghyabi
 SJRWMD board member, Maryam Ghyabi, an Ormond Beach engineer who made disparaging remarks about the district’s staff at a recent board meeting is now trying to calm the resultant insecurities of the district’s 500-plus employees. 

Unfortunately, words offer little comfort for those who have been “released”, and the proof of what happens next will be in how the district staff and board resolve the district's resource problems that are not going to disapear because of a down economy.   (Hi-liting is added)

Trimmed  water district (SJRWMD) faces new future
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER, Environment writer
Daytona Beach News Journal
 September 11, 2011 12:50 AM

Original story link: HERE
At a glance:
2011-12 budget: $209.28 million
2010-11 budget: $244.82 million
Proposed tax rate: $0.33 per $1,000 of taxable value, (26.5 percent lower than rolled-back rate of $0.45 per $1,000 of taxable value)
Rate cap by state law: $0.6 per $1,000 of taxable value
Total tax revenue: $85.4 million
Employees: 587
Positions cut: 186, including 130 employees and 56 contract workers, (An estimated savings of $14.98 million)
Counties served: 18, including Volusia and Flagler
Key project funding:

Adopt minimum flows and levels for lakes and springs: $1.55 million last year, $1.2 million this year

Alternative water supply projects: $44.2 million last year, $39.3 million this year

Land management and invasive plant control: $8.6 million last year, $6.6 million this year
SOURCE: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District meets Tuesday in Palatka to discuss the district's budget and future, grappling with the sea change continuing to ripple down from Tallahassee.
When Gov. Rick Scott and new legislators took office in January, it quickly became apparent that years of complaints by some local governments and development interests that the state's five water management districts were arrogant and imperious had finally fallen on fertile ground.
Changes have come fast and furious, with Scott making it clear he wanted the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to take a stronger role in district supervision. Eight policy memos were sent between March and June, asking for streamlining, consistency among districts and more state supervision. Several responded directly to concerns voiced by the governor's pre-inauguration transition team and to legislators during spring committee meetings.
Then, districts were ordered to cut tax rates for the coming year, with the St. Johns district, which includes Volusia and Flagler counties, cutting its rate by 26 percent, down $35 million in property tax revenues.
The five districts cut a combined $700 million, down to a total budget of $1 billion. The governor then ordered an additional $2.4 million in reductions to salaries and benefits, calling the actions the "first steps in ensuring that Florida's precious water resources are protected and managed in the most fiscally responsible way possible."
No one is certain what happens next, especially St. Johns district employees who have been shell-shocked this summer by the layoffs of 95 colleagues and the forced resignations or retirement of six senior staff. Employees say the mood is somber as they wait and worry.
Environmental advocates fear the cuts and changes will impede the district's ability to do its job and protect the state's drinking water supply and other water resources.
The advocates and employees have no need to fear, board member Maryam Ghyabi said last week.
"It will not influence the core mission, I promise you," said Ghyabi, an engineer from Ormond Beach. "Yes, we're going to ask for customer service and efficiency, but at the end of the day, by law, we have to do our job, by law."
Herschel Vinyard, DEP secretary, said Friday the districts will "absolutely" be able to continue to protect Florida's environment, focusing on the "core mission: water supply, water resource protection, natural resources protection and flood control."
Activities he mentioned outside that boundary include 401K contributions for employees in addition to their "very generous state retirement plan." That and the practice of allowing employees to sell vacation and sick time back cost "more than $10 million a year and didn't create one drop of clean water," he said.
Overall, district observers remain split on the impact of the budget cuts, streamlining and organizational changes.
Board member Chuck Drake and state Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, have said the changes were needed because the district suffered from bureaucratic creep over the years, growing beyond the original scope.
Local former St. Johns board members, such as Saundra Gray of DeBary and Mike Braddock of Pierson, however, said the growth was a result of the Legislature adding responsibilities and shifting other duties from DEP to the district -- such as setting minimum flows and levels for waterways -- because of the district's taxing authority.
They are among those concerned the cuts could prevent enforcement of wetland and water resource protection rules and interrupt sound management of the nearly 700,000 acres of land publicly owned for water resource protection and supply and flood control.
Gray said she's "distressed" the district may lose momentum on some of its biggest projects, such as protection of the Indian River Lagoon and headwaters of the St. Johns River.
Of all the districts, said Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon of Florida, "the worst hammering is what happened at St. Johns."
The budget cuts were more political than meaningful tax relief, he said, noting that the cost savings for the average homeowner in the St. Johns district -- about $4.50 a year -- isn't even "enough money to buy a good pizza."
Others say the cuts and the changes are the result of years of imperious behavior that finally caught up with the districts. They point to such examples as staff members who made it clear to permit applicants that projects they didn't like would face a long, tough road to permitting. Or the time two senior staff members told St. Johns district's executive director Kirby Green, shortly after he was hired in 2001, that they had the board votes to prevent him from making changes they didn't support. Green confirmed that incident on Friday.
Ghyabi said the changes really started over a year ago, as she and others pressed for more efficiency and effectiveness. Many have questioned the length of time it takes to get a permit, more than a year in some cases.
It was clear the district needed to be "a whole lot more customer service-driven," Ghyabi said.
While there are people who would "pour asphalt over every inch of wetland," she said, "the majority of people who come (to the district) for a permit want to do the right thing." And, she said, those people want to know from the beginning how long it will take and about how much it will cost.
The district's job is to work with people to help them do the right thing, she said, not drag projects out beyond reasonable time frames.
At the August board meeting, Ghyabi said the 95 layoffs seemed to target lower and mid-level staff and not the senior staff who made the most money and had the most influence over policy direction. She suggested the board ask for resignations from "senior, senior staff."
Other board members disagreed and the subject was scheduled for discussion at the September board meeting.
However, the next day, Green asked four senior staff to resign. Three worked with the district's regulatory programs: department heads Marc Minno and Glenn Lowe and Jeff Elledge, who had overseen the permitting division for years until a reorganization earlier in the summer. The fourth was the longtime liaison to the state Legislature, Mike Slayton.
The resignations took some board members by surprise. Other district officials and environmental advocates said employees were targeted in retribution for permitting decisions
Asked about the staff changes on Friday, Green said Ghyabi's remarks were coincidental, that he had already planned to ask for the resignations because he was working on a massive internal reorganization. "We were trying to figure out how best to make the reductions we needed to make and still do the projects we needed to do and get our regulatory stuff done," he said. He also intends to give the regional service centers in Jacksonville, Altamonte Springs and Palm Bay more authority to do more permitting and permit review at the local level.
Asked whether he had suggestions or pressure from outside to target those senior staff members, Green replied: "very little."
Green recently moved his own planned retirement date up to Oct. 3, several months earlier than planned. Discussions with Vinyard have been more philosophical and organizational in nature, such as the types of programs to remain as part of the core mission, Green said, "rather than down to an individual."
However, current and former district officials confirm political repercussions continue to follow former General Counsel Kathryn Mennella. Mennella was asked to resign from her position earlier this year but remains with the district on a part-time basis to work on special projects. The district officials, who asked not to be named, confirmed this week that a University of Florida department wanted to hire Mennella but later backed out for political reasons.
Mennella could not be reached for comment and the university said its human resources computers were down Friday afternoon and could not confirm whether Mennella had applied. And, a university spokeswoman said human resources doesn't track all applications received by departments.
Lee said he sees two kinds of sweeping change happening: black and white in the form of the written memos and instructions flowing from Tallahassee and unwritten, conveyed by implication and body language.
He said the senior staff departures, targeted by "regulatory interests looking for an easier time of things," may have a "chilling effect on enforcement." "There certainly will be people who conscientiously step forward and try to do their job, but there's a pretty clear picture being painted that there aren't a whole lot of professional rewards in that," Lee said.
Phil Leary, a former district staff member who is now an agricultural consultant, said the district "had to do wholesale changes to send a message to other staff that this is a new day and you work for the taxpayers."
Leary and others describe an "entrenched regulatory mindset" on the part of some senior district staff that it "was either their way or no way."
For example, Ormond Beach and Volusia County tried over the years to impose stricter standards than the district had in place for things such as wetland protection and water conservation and were told that wasn't allowed.
Leary said one of his clients once had to spend $125,000 to permit a 100-acre blueberry farm with the district that should have been given an agriculture exemption from environmental resource permitting rules. In the spring, the Legislature transferred decisions about environmental permitting for agriculture operations from the district to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Green's major restructured district was announced last week. Three departments -- water resources, water resource management and regulatory -- were combined and then split into two: regulatory services and science and projects. Some of the agency's basic structure had been in place since the mid-1980s when the federal Surface Water Improvement programs began in the 1980s, he said. For example, some of the district's basin programs had their own biologists, ecologists and hydrologists. The new department will have a freshwater ecology group and an estuary ecology group, with those biologists working among basins as needed.
Ghyabi said Friday she knows the district's staff is "very, very nervous," in part because of comments she made at the August meeting.
"I'm trying to calm everything down," Ghyabi said. "There are a lot of people who work for the district who are extremely talented. I would hate for them to get discouraged."
The governing board meetings take place at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, with a budget hearing at 5:05 p.m. at the district headquarters, 4049 Reid Street, Palatka.

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