Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Unsolicited Thoughts – Governing Board Meeting – 10-25-11

Went online and watched the SWFWMD governing board meeting of October 25, 2011 this morning. 
I know, you’re thinking - doesn’t this guy have a life?
(I’m asking myself the same question.)
Haven’t done it often, though.  In fact, I can count on one hand the times, online or in person, that I’ve sat through a meeting since I retired in ‘03.  Well, maybe two hands.  Mostly because it triggers feelings I can do without.  This morning was not much different except this time I took notes with the intent of sharing some thoughts.
Before you ask, so who’s asking for my thoughts, I’ll admit, no one.  But I’m finding that when I share them, they seem to strike a chord.  I can only hope that anyone who does read what I write will agree enough to help change what’s wrong and support what appears to be right.  So with no expectations one way or the other and for what it may be worth …
WMD cutbacks too deep?
Irony of ironies, there is early feedback from the legislature (staff to staff, back channel) that maybe the cuts to some of the districts’ budgets were too deep.  Why? Because it’s becoming apparent that the districts might not be able to fund their share of projects co-funded with local governments.
Guess where the concern is coming from?  The Florida Senate. 
Guess who’s the budget czar of the Senate who’d be the one to know if funding cuts were too deep since he helped create them?  J. D. Alexander. 
Guess what project he would be most concerned about the district not being able to fund?  The $150,000,000 Polk County water supply project listed in the district water supply plan.
Guess who supported the dismantling of the basin boards?  J. D Alexander and the SWFWMD governing board.
Guess how that helps the Polk County project?  The governing board took control of the basin board taxing authority allowing it another $300,000,000 of funding capacity at the district board level, rather than by the individual basin boards which would have been controlled at the basin level.  This will now allow the governing board to use basin property taxes to help fund the Polk County water project.
Look for J. D. to support an increase to SWFWMD’s legislated budget limits.
What’s all this about EPA and Numerical Nutrient Criteria?
Want a clear, concise explanation of what the fuss is all about? Then, you might take a look at that part of the board meeting tape where Veronica Craw, district scientist, gives the board a briefing on the issue and its significance to Florida’s agricultural and environmental communities.  She did an outstanding job setting out the bases for the dispute and the positions of the interested parties, especially the state’s.
It’s extremely difficult to reduce a very complex subject to a lay board which may have to become involved at some point and must understand the issue thoroughly if they do.  If board members aren’t grasping the issues now, they will be able to with only a few more lessons from Ms. Craw.
Good things are happening in the Southern Water Use Caution Area
District staffer, Jill Hood, reported to the board that groundwater elevations are showing improvement south of Tampa Bay after years of uncertainty.  Very good news.  This, despite the associated new demand of 500,000 new residents in the area where per capita water use has dropped from 135 to 105 gallons per day.
The improvement to the groundwater was mostly attributed to the shifting of the phosphate and citrus industries further south and changes by those industries in how they use and reuse water now vs. ten to twenty years ago. 
Another very enlightening presentation of a difficult topic by an articulate and obviously very capable district scientist.
What was not mentioned was anything about how these “job-killing regulations” are not strangling the life-blood out of businesses as our CEO-governor wants us to believe simply because he so blindly believes it. 
What was not said was how these kinds of regulations are the guardians of this state’s economic future because without them there would be less water available by orders of magnitude to meet today’s and tomorrow’s growth demands in the region.
What was not mentioned is that there needs to be great care about which regulations will be found unneeded by the arbitrary mandate the governor has issued (to review all rules and regulations of the state for possible repeal) and CEO sec Herschel Vinyard’s subsequent unblinking pursuit.  Between the two of them, they’re in a position to do wholesale damage to the many critical protections such rules provide our quality of life and thus wholesale damage to the future of this state, if they act without thinking.  And so far, there’s been a lot of action without, it seems, a whole lot of thinking.
Governing board saved by banished basin board from Strange and Bradshaw redux
Like a fever that appears every time there’re new and innocent minds to infect, Chester Bradshaw assumed the podium and acted like it was a new issue. 
(Chester’s delivery has improved.  He sounded almost believable.)
He complained about staff. He complained about the district. He asked for relief.  Something about some very low land next to Lake Tsala Apopka in Citrus County, a levy or road, and what the district is doing or won’t do about some related problem for Charley Strange, the landowner.
He presented a letter, said it was from the county commission and implied it corroborated his concerns.
Unfortunately, one of the board members actually read the letter and realized it was not what Chester was implying.
Inexplicably, they began to discuss the problem anyway, asked the staff to explain details and seemed puzzled about it all until board member Neil Combe said he thought he remembered something.
That’s when the staff explained it had been an issue Chester Bradshaw and Charley Strange had been proffering to the district and basin board for years.  It had been investigated beyond thoroughly and studied ad nauseam by the basin board until members decided it was not a matter that merited further district interest or concern.  There is only so much staff time and energy the board can invest in a matter from a private citizen that is not within the purview of their public responsibility.
It occurred to me that this is what the governing board has to look forward to without the help of its basin boards.  Hours and hours of circular discussion that will go on and on and which will be repeated over and over while, like it or not, they should be focused on much larger issues for which they won’t have the time.
This is what CEO Scott and the new governing board members don’t get.  Government is not efficient in these situations.  People will demand consideration and their opportunity to be heard even when everyone knows the agency either can’t or won’t fix their problem at the public’s expense because it isn’t legal or appropriate.  The board will nevertheless be compelled to spend hours talking about it in order to give the appearance that they are an interested government  when in fact doing so is simply inappropriate and inefficient.
This is where the basin boards’ real value would come in.  They were local.  They knew details.  They would listen. They would bear the brunt of the responsibility to take action when it was merited.  Take one basin board’s time committed to local input and multiply that by eight to get an incling of how much time this requires. The governing board better get a hotel room and plan on staying awhile.   I recommend a Holiday Inn Express.
Another example of this was when the district ripped out the Wysong Dam from the Withlacoochee River over the objections of the local citizenry because, according to the staff at the time, it served no beneficial purpose.  It caused such anger and ill-will it spurred the creation of an organization that would call itself “Too Far” because that’s where they felt the district went without input from local residents.
The locals believed fervently that it truly did serve a valuable purpose.  They accosted the district for years until the basin board at last said, okay, it’s your taxes, you want it, we’ll put it back.  And the basin board did.  Al Coogler was the ex officio chair of the basin board at the time.  Local folks were so appreciative they got the basin board to name the new structure the Coogler-Wysong Dam. 
Chalk up another job done well by the Withlacoochee Basin Board and all the local citizens who refused to give up … that the governing board didn’t have to deal with.
Remove the District regional service office from Bartow?
Blake Guillory reported that the district’s service office is in need of repair.  The bid price for fixing it came in at a cost greater than the combined appraised values of the property and building thus creating the dilemma: repair it and create an investment that would be more than the value of the end result, or find an alternative.
This triggered concern in the Bartow area that the district might consider just shutting down the district’s presence in Polk County all together and operating out of its Tampa office or Brooksville headquarters.
The tape clearly reflects Guillory stating there is no intent to shut down the Bartow office but they will need to find a more economically sensible approach to the problem.
A later communication directly from him confirmed this.
Rest easy J. D.
Core Mission … or whatever, again
That pesky concept that is presumed to describe what Florida water management is all about, according to slogan-meister Herschel Vinyard (who also wants “to get the water right”), just keeps coming up.  No one can quite figure out what he means though.  Even a collection of the presumed most brainy legal brains of the water world said recently at a Marco Island conference sponsored by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, that it basically means whatever one wants it to mean as long it’s statutorily authorized.
Chairman Senft wisely noted how core mission is defined at SWFWMD may not be the same at, say, SJRWMD or SFWMD because things are, well, different there.
Déjà vu?  Imagine that.
After all the feed lot dust clears, I predict they will come to the same place the districts were long before CEO Scott’s reign in terms of their different identities and operations.  They will, nevertheless, feverishly rejoice how they have achieved a splendid job of redefining water management in Florida, saved millions of dollars and reduced government, when all they really will have done is what could have been done anyway with a lot less pain and turmoil simply by reducing the scope of each of the district’s respective operations to reflect a recession of historic proportions and just freeze hiring.  Let normal attrition reduce staff and operational activity.  It would have worked, but I guess it wouldn't have had the same political impact for one's political ambitions, would it? 

Later, Board member Doug Tharp cautioned they needed to be careful because if they aren’t, they’ll be identifying more things the district needs to be doing instead of less.  Imagine that.
Thus, the governing board feels the need to have a workshop to work on what they want core mission to mean.
Stay tuned.  No telling what will come out of that.  Flood Protection, Water Supply, Water Quality and Environmental Protection maybe?
Can you imagine any of this?  Maybe Alice can, down a rabbit hole. It's bizarre.
Restructuring the district, or; how to reduce the staff sensitively
This, in the final analysis, is where the new reality of water management is being brought home, literally, to hundreds of good, really outstanding people from all five of the districts.
However, as sad and uncomfortable as it is, a sound reason why it should not be done will be hard to find. 
There are many emotional things all of us want to say to those snagged by the net - that it is wrong, that it is cold hearted, that there ought to be another way. We want them to feel our empathy, the pain we share, and how much we want it not to be happening.
But the hard, stark, irrefutable reality is that without question the districts needed to reduce the scope of their operations to reflect a severely stalled global economy that has impacted everyone.
This is not to say the way the districts’ new management teams are doing this is in the wisest or most sensitive way, but, at least at SWFWMD, their hearts seem to be in the right place even if their heads aren’t at times.
The proof of their wisdom and their true motivations will be in how effectively they will continue to be able to carry out their core missions, once they figure out what those are, and have done all the “restructuring” they will do. 

Notably, after being criticized for slashing blindly without truly knowing what the consequences will be, it is being heard that the good the districts have done and can continue to do will not be abandoned.  SWFWMD board chair Paul Senft said it succinctly, “We must guarantee the district’s historic level of service will be maintained and the district’s core missions continued.”
The legacy that will be left for our children by this period of destruction upon the water management districts, as it has been termed, must not be a beautiful and natural Florida permanently scarred or destroyed.  It must, on the other hand, be a renewed appreciation for the fact that Florida’s unique natural beauty is as intertwined with its economic well being as water is with air.  Only with one, can there be the other.


  1. Hi Sonny - Some very good points. I enjoy your blog...

  2. Outstanding blog. I have a further thought though. If it is necessary to reduce the SWFWMD budget, not, of course by the unreasonable amount suggested, why is the first step always getting rid of people outright? Has anyone taken the time to ask the employees themselves for solutions? Have they asked the employees if they would be willing to take 1,2 or 3 days per month off without pay and/or take a 10% salary cut? While this may put less in their paycheck, I believe they would accept that, in light of the fact that their health benefits would remain intact, which is, I have no doubt, their greater concern.
    Just ask the people you want to fire what they would suggest. Isn't that the most decent and humane thing to do? Would it hurt that much to pursue this avenue?

  3. To the SWFWMD personnel who received the email regarding a severance offer from the hierarchy.
    If you sign the agreement and voluntarily resign your employment, you will be disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation. Also, if you file, you will be ineligible for the period covered by severance pay. Be very careful when making your decision. The only ones who will benefit are the hierarchy.