Nearly 1,000 special-purpose governments across Florida that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.
Lobbyist registration and disclosure has been mandatory for years in Tallahassee and in many city and county halls across the state, where lawmakers found it necessary to preserve the integrity of the decision-making process. Violators can be fined and barred from lobbying for up to two years.
But Florida’s independent special districts are a separate class of government — a hodgepodge of obscure taxing and other authorities that, with few exceptions, offer the public no information about lobbyists or what they’re up to at their agencies.
BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent months documenting that sweeping lack of government accountability, a free ride enjoyed by lobbyists at independent special districts around Florida with the power to tax, assess fees and/or sell low-interest bonds to finance government spending.
“The issue is transparency: who is getting the benefit of governmental largess,” said Frank S. Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts.
The agencies offer dozens of specialized governmental services — from water management, mosquito control and community development to public hospitals, children’s services, ports and airports.
Many independent districts with big money to spend, like the $622.2 million South Florida Water Management District, regularly encounter lobbyists. The state’s largest water district collects property taxes in 16 counties and is run by a governing board appointed by the governor and dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.
The environmental group Audubon Florida sees a problem in the lack of lobbyist registration.
“There are consultants to the sugar industry who are spending time with and influencing the thinking of South Florida Water Management District governing board members, and they should be registered as lobbyists,” said Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper.
Florida’s five water management districts levied $480 million in property taxes statewide in 2012, yet none register lobbyists. Draper said the Legislature should adopt statewide lobbying rules for all special taxing districts.
BrowardBulldog.org surveyed dozens of independent districts, including the 38 with budgets in excess of $50 million. Only three districts reported having some form of lobbyist regulation; another prohibits lobbying in its bylaws. A half-dozen attorneys and officials who represent or work for special districts in Florida, including Palen, said they were aware of no other independent districts that register lobbyists.
Integrity Florida, the Tallahassee-based nonprofit and nonpartisan government watchdog, said change is needed to ensure accountability.
“If you’re spending taxpayer money and there’s a lobbyist involved in the spending of that money, then there should be at least some basic lobbyist disclosure,” said Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox.
O’Neal Bardin Jr., president of the Florida Association of Special Districts and executive director of the $28 million Northern Palm Beach Improvement District, said registration would help those who work at special districts better understand those who may approach them.
Special districts are independent or dependent. Dependents, which include ubiquitous community redevelopment agencies, are vassals of municipalities and typically follow their rules regarding lobbyist registration.
Florida has authorized 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards, to impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses in one or more counties, according to Department of Revenue data. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 — the most recent year for which complete statistics are available — those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.
Seven districts account for half of that total. They are the South Florida, Southwest Florida and St. John’s River water management districts; the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health; the Health Care District of Palm Beach; the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach; and The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade.
Their cumulative 2012 property tax bite: $936,700,000.
The Children’s Trust is the only one of the seven with a registration requirement.
The Broward Children’s Services Council, with 2012 revenues of $59.5 million, prohibits lobbying in its bylaws.
Smaller districts with large public works projects are also attractive to lobbyists.
The $12 million Lake Worth Drainage District has for several years been exploring the establishment of a regional water utility to address southeast Florida’s future drinking water supplies, Palen said. It would involve a replumbing of much of western Palm Beach County to make drainage flow to the south to replenish aquifers in Broward and Miami-Dade.
“The project may involve a $1 billion investment in infrastructure, land acquisition, etc.,” said Palen. “It should attract a lot of interest.”
Miami Lakes investment advisor Richard Lehmann publishes the Florida Community Development District Report. Community Development Districts raise revenue through assessments in planned communities. He said he doesn’t see the lack of lobbyist registration at CDDs as a problem.
“Developers run things as if they were paying the money themselves,” Lehmann said. “For homeowners, it’s money that’s coming out of their assessments and therefore it’s not like a government spending other people’s money.”
Janet Tutt is the district manager of The Villages, the fast-growing retirement community about 20 miles south of Ocala. The Villages comprises 13 CDDs and one dependent utility district in Sumter County that work together via inter-local agreements.
“We have $250 million in budgets,” Tutt said. “Some of our contracts are quite large.” The Villages has no lobbyist registration but discourages lobbying “as a matter of custom,” according to Tutt.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a thorough review of Florida’s 1,600 special districts with an eye toward finding efficiencies and increasing accountability.
“We’re still working on it,” said Scott’s press secretary, Jackie Schutz.
In 2011, BrowardBulldog.org reported about the South Florida Water Management District’s $1.5 million purchase in 2007 of 15 large electric pumps that quickly failed, and how the company that sold the pumps was refusing to honor its warranty. At the time of the sale the company had an undisclosed inside connection: Its lawyer/lobbyist was vice chairman of the district’s nine-member governing board. The lack of lobbyist registration served to veil that relationship.
Among other special districts in the news is the billion-dollar North Broward Hospital District, which has a long reputation for political favoritism and a lack of transparency in contracting. It is the focus of an ongoing federal anti-kickback inquiry that’s examining allegations of bogus Medicare and Medicaid claims. It does not have lobbyist registration, although it does pay a lobbyist to influence matters of policy or procurement in Tallahassee. There, lobbyists must register.