Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stupid is as stupid does (Sound the Alarm!)

When Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does,” he was saying, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.

Our CEO-Governor has declared that the water management districts need to sell off some of their environmentally sensitive lands acquired at the direction of Florida’s voters over the last 40-50 years, land that was considered so important to the future of Florida’s economy, quality of life and unique natural assets that it needed to be protected forever through public ownership.  He says the money is needed to help fund some significant revenue deficits the districts have incurred recently.

Cause a problem. Mandate a solution. Make it worse.

I have hope that one day the governor will realize the deficits to which he refers so disdainfully are the same ones he and his friends in the legislature caused when they capped the districts’ constitutionally-authorized funding of their budgets, which, by the way, could be interpreted as illegal state control of ad valorem taxing authority.  (State government, i.e., the legislature and the governor, is specifically prohibited by Florida’s constitution from levying property taxes, an authority it reserves for local governments.  Taking control from the local governing boards could be in violation of that prohibition.)

WMD’s are part of the answer, not the problem.

I have another hope that one day he’ll realize the collective revenue generating capacity of the water management districts is critically necessary for funding Florida’s vitally needed statutory protections for its unique and fragile natural systems.  But I don’t hold a lot of belief that any such realization is in the offing even though the state is practically stone broke and could never assume this fundamental responsibility. Stupid is as stupid does, and cutting the district’s revenues, so far, has the potential for becoming an historic stupid does.

Selling unique natural Florida to the highest bidder in a down market is not the answer

Some Atomic Brain of T-Town in a flash of brilliance devoid of simple logic has concluded that since the state is broke and the WMD’s have now been reduced to similarly broke state entities, maybe the districts should sell some public land.  CEO-secretary Vinyard, ever the laser-focused soldier, has consequently mandated the districts to review all properties in their respective inventories, identify which are non-essential, and get rid of any offending purposeless, useless and unneeded acres.

I attended a meeting last week in Orlando of about 50 very prominent and very concerned individuals to talk about how this exercise is terribly boneheaded and wrong.  The consensus, as I saw it, was that there are a number of very valid reasons why any significant selling of these lands will be just another huge mistake of massive proportion by a clueless administration.

Assuming the mandate is going to stick, our group focused on what would probably be the most important task which is to determine what is meant by “non-essential.”  In the past, there would have been very few properties considered non-essential. The belief was that an inseparably small parcel might not now be of significance but could become so in the future. 

And, the process to declare a small parcel no longer needed for public purposes, vetting the choice with the public who paid for it, advertising a solicitation for bids, comparing and choosing the top few, having the governing board select one, and having the state approve it (including perhaps even having to go before the Govenor and Cabinet), and then arguing with the state over who gets the money, is simply onerous and most likely not worth the expense of the process.  Nevertheless, though worried about how easily mischief might find its way, we concluded that under a tighter definition and with greater latitude from the state, there are probably a relatively few small parcels that could be found “non-essential” and sold.

The devil, however, will reside subcutaneously amidst the tiny follicular details. Open up the definition of non-essential too much and the baby will be sold with the bathwater.  Shorten the disposal recipe too much and ugly missteps, fraud and, should I even say it, poisonous politics could ruin the cake. 

Never eat your seed corn

If the motivation is truly just to generate money to operate the districts, nothing could be more stupid is as stupid does.  No one at the meeting could keep from rolling their eyes when it was mentioned the districts might use money from the sale of property for operational purposes. 

It would be a classic no-no.  Never, NEVER, should non-recurring revenues be used to fund recurring expenses.  It is a fundamental rule of management even a freshman legislator should understand.  It’s like digging the hole you’re already in deeper or, as a Sarasota County commissioner succinctly put it, “It would be like eating your seed corn.”  It just isn’t done, not by responsible managers anyway.

But wait!  That’s not all. 

Let’s assume a few dollars do come in from such a sale.  If the original purchase involved state largesse (Save Our Rivers, P-2000, CARL, Florida Forever, etc.), there would be a legitimate question as to where the income from the sale should then go.  Should it be used by a broke water management district “to buy more land” as has been whispered by certain vacuous T-Town minions, or should it go back to state coffers that are so empty they echo so “no new taxes” will be needed to balance the state budget?

Buy high, sell low

Which brings up the next question. What sense does it make to sell anything in this economic climate?  To generate enough money to make the exercise worth doing would require the sale of tracts of significant acres.  Let’s say a tract in Citrus County of maybe 10,000 acres was purchased for $17 million sometime in the past.  How much would the final offer have to be to make a deal worth it to the public who invested the $17 million?  Is the appraised value going to be at least as high as the original purchase price in today’s market?  Probably not.  Would the public accept any amount less than the original purchase price?  Certainly not.

Now is the time to buy, not sell

In reality, the thought should not be to sell at all, but to buy.  Now!  Even the most challenged portfolio managers know the time to buy is when land values are in the pits, not sell. 

But the Dynamic Duo of T-Town has inexplicably placed a hold on all land purchases by the districts and is directing the districts to sell “non-essential” environmental lands anyway.  As stated, they just shouldn’t be selling anything!  In fact, they should be looking to buy property that until recently was just too expensive to consider.  Now’s the time to buy properties that are extraordinarily unique and might never again be possible to place in public ownership for future generations to enjoy and appreciate as Florida used to be.

Does finding no human footprints mean the land is unused and worthless?

At one point during the discussion at our table, it was asked if land that “… has not had any public footprints” on it since acquired should be considered unused and non-essential?

The answer is absolutely not.  Many of these properties considered ecologically fragile and unique were placed in public ownership because of it.  Protection and preservation of important natural assets are fundamental to any environmental land acquisition program.  Allowing inappropriate public use could destroy the very characteristics for which the property was purchased in the first place. 

This is not to say public access should be totally denied.  Even Ecuador allows the Galapagos Islands to have limited and carefully managed public access.  Every property is comprehensively assessed to assure the public will be able to enjoy it in ways that are appropriate for the reasons the land was acquired and which does not jeopardize public safety. 

In fact, this is a process required by statute.  Called a management plan, it’s the district’s responsibility to develop the best mix of public uses for every tract in its ownership that is consistent with protecting and preserving the property in a manner that reflects the reason it was acquired.

Science-based decision making

Over time, the methodology used by the water management districts to identify ecologically important lands has become based upon sound science because science is the best way to eliminate human bias and politics from the decision.  When tens of millions of public dollars are involved, the process needs to be squeaky clean and as free of arbitrary human biases as possible, especially political influence.

Today, every scrap of pertinent physical information about a tract can be visually depicted in a very precise way using Geographic Information Systems technology.  By creating digital layers on a digitally created topographic aerial photograph, the heaviest concentrations of desirable and undesirable traits become quickly and easily apparent.  Topography, archeology, bio-diversity, flood elevations, wetlands, recharge characteristics, geology, rare and endangered species are just a few of the types of information that can be depicted.

This is also how any so-called surplus lands should be identified, with science and objectivity and without political influence.

So, if there are all these plausible reasons to think that selling even justifiably non-essential property is bad business, bad public policy and particularly bad karma, where is the drive to do so coming from, if not from just plain egregiously poor judgment?

Sound the alarm!

These lands were not bought to be managed as a portfolio for profit-making.  They were placed in public ownership with the expectation that they would be protected and preserved for generations, yes, even centuries.  They were not purchased for speculation to be sold to operate government at any time, especially when the economy is down.  Such is not only counterintuitive but a fraud perpetrated upon the public who voted to acquire these valuable lands for legitimate purposes and paid for them. 

At the end of the meeting, each table was asked to identify a single idea or conclusion that might lead to further action.  As each reported, it was clear.  There was a strong, defined feeling that the proposal to sell lands needs to be reconsidered for all the reasons stated.  But there was also the fear that, despite these misgivings, there is a powerful misguided push to go forward anyway. 

Clearly, there was the feeling that too much heartfelt work, public investment and potential harm to Florida’s future exists not to sound an alarm, an alarm that needs to be heard by all who care about Florida’s future in all respects: quality of life, economy and natural environment.  There needs to be a unified voice of opposition against this ill-advised, ill-considered idea.

So, add this one alarmed voice to the others and yours.  This terribly misguided strategy, so destructive to the good work and intentions of so many highly respected, bi-partisan leaders over decades, needs to be stopped now.

3 comments:

  1. David A. Tomasko, Ph.D.October 18, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    Florida used to be a shining example of how to manage water and land – great stories about how we have cleaner bays and lakes and rivers despite the crush of new people. Hell, I got to go to Japan to give a talk about the success stories of Tampa and Sarasota Bays (maybe you don’t remember signing off on my leave of absence?). And the government of Japan paid my travel – that’s how good of a story we had to tell. Actually got travel paid to go to the Philippines as well – but before you were ED.

    Florida’s success stories aren’t unique in the US (other examples such as Potomac River, Lake Erie, etc.) but Florida was famous for being well managed, whether or not the Governor had a D or an R after their name. Granted, the Ds were my preference, but Bob Martinez created SWIM, Nixon created EPA, and Bush the elder had a good record as well. And you were a Republican, right? Grumpy enough to have been one. So what the hell happened here? I’m in the private sector, and definitely see how private can be more efficient (key is we reward hard workers and drop lazy ones) but this is WAY overkill.

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  2. I agree that private can be more efficient than government but, its not always better. Its easy to measure private success by looking at the bottom line, however, how do you measure the success of preserving land, recreational land use or having water available to the public. As citizens we have large demands from government and not always willing to pay for our desires. As they say you get what you pay for...

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  3. I've been totally disgusted (as if Scott's previous actions weren't enough) with the actions taken and views espoused by Guillory since he was annointed.

    What escapes me is the total lack of any responsible action by the Board since Scott took office; it's not as if they were paid appointees and needed to keep their jobs!

    I fear greatly for the staff who've spent their careers doing the very best that they could in meeting their professional responsibilities and serving the public.

    The catastrophic outcome that will be the result of Scott and company's previous actions, and Guillory's proposed and future actions trouble me even more.

    Fifty hard fought years of environmental milestones created and recognized worldwide are being dismantled.

    It's more than this rational individual (and conservative) can comprehend.

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