Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Do your County Commissioners know what SWFWMD has taken from them?

How many times have you thrown something away only to realize a week later that what you thought you no longer wanted is exactly what you now need?  How many times have you groaned over how much more you’ll have to pay to replace it than its original cost?  And -- be honest now -- how many times have you denied (to yourself and others) how stupid, shortsighted, myopic, and unthinking you felt for doing something you later realized was just plain wrong?
If you say, never, speaking truthfully is probably not one of your stronger suits … but, hey, join the crowd.  It’s the political season.
Last spring, under a deluge of ignorance and arrogance released from T-Town and in a frenzy to help the new governor look like he knew what he was doing, the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District tossed on the garbage heap eight of its most valuable resource management tools along with some 30 or 40 of its most effective, unpaid community voices. 
Saying an estimated expense of $400,000 per year was too much to support its eight basin boards, the big board booted them from the district’s headquarters south of Brooksville without so much as a whisper or fare-thee-well to the dozens of cities and counties they served.  Even $300,000 was too much to pay, they said, out of an annual budget that at one time exceeded $300,000,000.  The district needed to cut irrelevant and unnecessary costs, they said.
For fifty years unpaid, volunteer basin board members vetted the district’s projects providing the governing board valuable guidance and local insight as well as garnering critically important community support for levying a property tax to fund them.  Appointed by the governor, they also provided an important avenue of communications for the governor to personally touch dozens of communities within the 16 counties of SWFWMD, and for those same communities to let the governor know when he was doing good and when he wasn’t.  Only a very na├»ve, unwise and terribly misguided politician would let something so valuable be so arrogantly discarded, and, yet, this is exactly what Rick Scott did.
At its meeting in November, SWFWMD’s governing board began the touchy process of developing policies and processes that will be needed to, 1) sort through an estimated 120 projects submitted by local governments for the 2012 local project cooperative funding program, 2) analyze the necessity for each project so priorities could be set, 3) develop local support of those specifically desired by the district, 4) gain support for levying the property taxes needed to fund those chosen, 5) develop an accounting procedure that will assure former basin funds currently in reserve will be spent only on behalf of the former basin’s geographic area, 6) develop another accounting procedure that will assure tax revenues will be spent equitably throughout the district for multiple projects, etc. , etc. 
In other words, they were trying to develop policies and processes to do exactly what the basin boards had been doing for 50 years before they were summarily abolished last spring.
The irony of the discussion was obviously missed by the presumably, smart and well-intentioned but thoroughly inexperienced governing board members as they spent nearly two hours trying to reinvent from scratch what they had so unthinkingly destroyed a few months earlier.
They talked about how they should perhaps divide the district into smaller areas in order to facilitate “local input.”  Some suggested using county boundaries but it was noted that watershed or “aguafer” (sic) boundaries made more sense, like the river watershed boundaries upon which the basin boards were designed.
They talked about creating citizen’s advisory committees and governing board sub-committees to seek public input, in order to replace the regional forums so effectively provided by the basin boards.
They talked about how to set up a new bookkeeping system in order to insure project costs reflected a commensurate benefit to the taxpayers paying for them, like that which the basin boards had once so effectively provided but are no longer.
They talked about how current reserves left over from the dismantled basin boards should be spent to benefit the basins from which the taxes were originally generated, like it was done routinely before the basin boards were declared too bothersome, cumbersome and unnecessary to keep around.
They talked about how the meetings should be held at various locations around the district to insure locals could have convenient access to the process and their voices fully heard, exactly like it was being accomplished by the basin boards.
They talked about needing to make sure the meetings were properly advertised so locals would know when and where they would be held as required by law, which was already being accomplished by the basin boards but which was terminated when they were abolished.
They talked further about how the staff would also need to do this, and the staff would also need to do that to insure everyone felt invited and to be a participant rather than just invited to attend, like the staff did for the basin boards before they were abolished.
But no one spoke of the expense of doing all this which was beginning to sound a whole lot like the $300,000-$400,000 they had so feverish tried to save by doing away with the basin boards in the first place.
BUT more importantly …  they did not talk about the inescapably ugly little truth that once the reserves left over from the former basin boards are extinguished, there will be no legal requirement that will insure taxes levied within a given basin will be spent back within that basin, like only the existence of basin boards can guarantee. 
They did not mention that sub-committees comprised of a couple of governing board members, or citizen advisory committees comprised of residents chosen by the governing would not be able to provide this important legal requirement that was lost when the basin  boards were abolished.
This was the folly and the blatant subterfuge of the whole discussion.
Either the board was extraordinarily clever at camouflaging the issue or they themselves failed to see the significance and sad irony of it.  I suspect it was the latter. 
Commissioner Charlie Stone,
Marion County BOCC
Marion County Assistant County Administrator, M. Stuart McElhaney, apparently had no awareness of this important point when he approached the podium to read a letter signed by Marion County Commission Chairman, Charlie Stone.  The letter urged the GB to recognize and continue the district’s long tradition of seeking local input for developing and cooperatively funding so many projects that were needed by both the district and the county.  In fact, he said the county would support the committee concept and noted the commission felt the board was doing a good job! 
He obviously had no idea that by abolishing the basin boards and assuming control of the basin taxes, the governing board had stripped away the fundamental legal requirement that basin taxes collected from Marion County would have to be spent back within the Withlacoochee River Basin of which Marion County is a part.
That part of the story was never mentioned or acknowledged.  After the current reserves are gone, Marion County will have to compete against projects from the district’s other 15 counties to get funding for its projects, no matter that basin taxes collected from within Marion County would be involved.
Do you think Chair Charlie knew this when he signed the letter?
Do any of the other commissioners know that by doing away with the Withlacoochee Basin Board the governing board has stripped away Marion County’s only statutory guarantee that the basin taxes formerly levied within Marion County would be spent within the basin and by doing so, county taxes can now be spent elsewhere, like in Polk County to pay for Polk’s future water supply needs estimated by the district to cost some $320,000,000?
(This $320M figure, new to me, was offered by Kurt Fritsch during the discussion to point out that there were still plenty of water supply projects needed within the district pursuant to the district’s own Regional Water Supply Plan.)
I wonder if all those fiscal conservatives who attended the CEO-governor’s budget announcement party last year in The Villages know their property taxes can now be shuffled off to J. D. Alexander’s back yard for Polk’s needs and diverted from Lake County’s.  Do they realize the chairman of SWFWMD, Paul Senft, is from Polk County?  Maybe someone needs to talk to governing board member Doug Tharp who lives in The Villages and supposedly represents Marion County.  You think?  Maybe he’d be a little more interested in why the basin boards existed in the first place and what they did for the district that he’s now trying to replicate. 

Robin DiSabatino, Joe McClash, Carol Whitmore, Donna Hayes, John Crappie, Larry Bustle, Michael Gallen 
Manatee County BOCC
  Manatee County Utilities Director, Mark Simpson, then stepped to the podium and, inexplicably, did the same thing.  He noted how important local input is and how project parity for levied taxes was so important and how the “committees” were a “good compromise” because committees allowed local input. 
He did not point out how the governing board’s destruction of the basin boards removed the statutory guarantee that taxes levied in the Manasota Basin were required to be spent on projects there and no such constraint exists for board sub-committees or citizen advisory committees.  Does the Manatee County Commission know this?  Do my friends, Commissioners Joe McClash, Donna Hayes, Carol Whitmore and Larry Bustle, know this?  Or the other commissioners I might meet one day: Robin DiSabatino, John Chappie and Michael Gallen?
I wonder if my own commissioners from Hernando County realize this: Dave Russell, Jeff Stabins, John Druzbick, James Adkins, Wayne Dukes.

Dave Russell, Jeff Stabins, John Druzbick, James Adkins, Wayne dukes
Hernando County BOCC
And what about my friends on the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners: Sandra Murman, Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham, Ken Hagan, and Les Miller.  I wonder if they’re aware that the (former) Hillsborough River Basin Board right now has $28.5 million ($27 million in reserve and $1.5 million as balance forward) for projects within that basin?  Most of it generated to co-fund a badly needed stormwater project for south Tampa but scuttled by former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.  
Do they realize that after those funds are gone, the same ad valorem taxes from Hillsborough and the City of Tampa can be used to build a $320M project in Polk County if this is what the governing board chooses to do?
I wonder if friends from some of the other 16 counties within SWFWMD know this like: Commissioners Susan Latvala and Karen Seel from Pinellas County, Ann Hildebrand from Pasco County, Rebecca Bays and Joe Meek from Citrus County, Nora Patterson and Jon Thaxton from Sarasota County. (Pinellas County has $21.3 million ($13.5 million in reserve and $7.8 million as balance forward) for projects within the (former) Pinellas-Anclote Basin.
Here’s the point: when all that money is burned off, any basin funds raised afterward from the taxpayers of any of these counties for water projects can be designated for “regional” projects outside their county.
So here’s something for you and your commissioners to consider.   A thoughtful resolution from your Board of County Commissioners might be able to bring some reason to this unreasonable scenario.  If they were to pass such a resolution and send it to their respective county legislative delegations, perhaps the legislature can bring about a return of the basin boards that, in some reasonable form, would reflect the current objectives of the SWFWMD governing board and the original valid and now recognized roles of the former basin boards.
Here’s a draft resolution that might be considered:

RESOLUTION NO. __________
RESOLUTION OF THE ___­­­­­­­­­­_________________  BOARD OF COUNTY
 COMMISSIONERS OF ___­­­­­­­­­­_________________ COUNTY

WHEREAS, the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board created basin Boards in 1961 to insure property taxes collected within nine river basins defined by law for water management purposes would be expended only for purposes benefitting those respective basins; and,

WHEREAS, rule 40D-0.061, Florida Administrative Code, provides legal descriptions of the basins within the Southwest Florida Water Management District; and,
WHEREAS, basin board members were unpaid volunteers appointed by the Governor from each county wholly or partly within the basin thereby assuring each county had a voice in identifying the projects needed and the amount of taxes to be levied; and,
WHEREAS the duties of the Basin Board members included developing a budget to provide funding for the water resource projects they deemed would benefit, directly or indirectly, their basin; and,
WHEREAS, each board member was subject to the taxes levied by the basin board of which he or she was a member; and,
WHEREAS, the Governing Board of the District is prohibited from levying the taxes of the basin as long as the basin board exists and when the Basin Board develops a budget for its basin; and,
WHEREAS, on June 1, 2011, the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board officially “merged” the Basin Boards of the district into one large basin with the same boundaries as the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and
WHEREAS, subsequently the Governing Board disbanded all the basin boards and released their members from further service; and,
WHEREAS, the Governing Board then designated itself as the new District-wide Basin Board thereby transferring ad valorem taxing capacity of the Basin Boards to the District Governing Board; and,
WHEREAS, this action was not announced on a published agenda and was taken without a good faith effort by the District to notify interested citizens who might have had concerns about such action, and;
WHEREAS, by disbanding the Basin Boards, the Governing Board will now assume responsibility for adopting a single budget for all the Basins collectively as one single Basin and levy a Basin tax uniformly for the single Basin; and,
WHEREAS, by doing so any taxes thus levied will no longer be controlled by local residents and could be spent anywhere in the district at the discretion of the Governing Board with no requirement that taxes levied within a particular river basin will benefit that particular basin as it was conceived by the original laws creating the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and,
WHEREAS the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board will no longer be able to provide assurance that taxes collected from within a given Basin’s boundaries would be spent for purposes benefiting only that respective basin; and,
WHEREAS, more specifically, no sub-committee of the governing board or any citizens advisory committee created by the governing board can guarantee that basin taxes must be spent within the river basin from which they came; and,
WHEREAS until they were disbanded by the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Basin Boards served faithfully and efficiently in the interest of their basins for over fifty years;
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the ________________ County Board of County Commissioners does hereby direct the following:
1.     That, the Governing Board of Southwest Florida Water Management District be requested to reestablish Basin Board’s within the District that will function as they have in the past to assure local taxes will be spent from within the area they were collected for purposes that benefit only that area; and,
2.     That, the Basins and Basin Boards so reestablished will number no less than three in number and be representative of no less that the northern portion, middle portion and southern portion of the District; and,
3.     That, each county lying wholly or partly within a basin be represented by no less than one member on the Basin Board; and,
4.     That, the Basin Boards be provided by law no less than the same budgetary and taxing authority that they held before they were disbanded; and,
5.     That, a copy of this resolution be sent to Governor Rick Scott along with a cover letter urging him to affirm his support of this resolution to the Chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and making appropriate appointments to the  Basin Boards upon becoming reestablished; and,
6.     That, a copy of this resolution be sent to each member of the county’s legislative delegation asking that the delegation draft and support a legislative mandate to the Southwest Florida Water Management District that the basins be re-established accordingly.
PASSED AND DULY ADOPTED by the Board of County Commissioners of _____________ County, Florida this ____ day of _________________, 20__.


  1. Sonny, I do believe your friends on the Hernando County Commission understand well what is going on...in fact, they understood it so well that they decided to use the ad valorem tax that would have gone to the two Hernando basin boards to help keep a few county employees on the job. I suspect they were glad to have a fraction of a mill more to play with...in their minds, that likely made up for any loss from the Scott-mandated disappearance of the basin boards. But as you know well, elected politicians are much better at short-term band-aid solutions than long-term thinking about the best interests of their constituents.

  2. As they say...'HOT DAMN'. what a great dissertation on an important subject! For sure a start to get those who write the rules to listen....if they can read, oops I mean if they will read it!

  3. Give'em hell, Sonny.

    State Senator

  4. Best one yet Sonny!

    State Representative

  5. Sonny – what is happening on the SWFWMD discussion is nothing more than what is happening everywhere else in Government because of the massive turnover. All the new people apparently don’t do any homework.

    Case in point, I sat at a Governor and Cabinet Meeting where the Governor and Cabinet were receiving a presentation, by a new
    State Lands Director, under a new Secretary, neither of whom had been in the conservation land business (despite St. Joe history) before they got their jobs. All of the new Governor and Cabinet members had never been around for land acquisition processes or projects selection either.

    So the first words out of their mouth were “ We need to be more strategic about our acquisitions. We should have goals for why we buy land.” The conversation continued along that vein. Clearly, the institutional knowledge that still exists in the agency is afraid to be passed along because “I might be fired,” if I put my nose into my superiors business. If they had been briefed properly they would know that the statute sets out specific goals starting with protection of endangered species and rounding out with recreational access across the two million acres that have been purchased since the 1950’s, but most in the last 20 years.

    The Cabinet meeting was crazy from the perspective of a veteran observer. Hearing questions from Cabinet members who clearly were not briefed sufficiently – because they don’t make the time for it. Briefings are 15 minutes, sometimes in the car on the way from the airport to the Cabinet meeting.

    None of the elected officials and their new appointees care anymore, Sonny. The citizens of Florida just want a job. The government employees just want to protect their own jobs. Protecting the environment, including the water that we need is somewhere like number 8 on the list of priorities.

  6. Do you know who is to blame for all the trouble in SWFWMD and the rest of the state? Don't look any further than you who voted for "slick rick". Do you know what you based your vote on; a slick campaign by the minions of "slick rick". All he had to do was flash his "Mr. Clean" smile and say "let's get to work" and you fell for it hook, line and sinker. Never mind the fact that he doesn't know anything about government OR business. You didn't ask for his "credentials" or check him out. You have been had people. Professor Harold Hill is back in town and if you re-elect and allow him to continue to sell his boys band uniforms, then you might as well get on the same train he will take out of town, with all your money; and all that will be left is a town/state with nothing left but boys uniforms and no band.