South Florida water managers flipflop on tax cut

At a hastily called meeting Friday, South Florida water managers voted to cut taxes, reversing a nearly unanimous decision made just two weeks ago.

All but one member, plus newly appointed Homestead farmer Sam Accursio, voted eight to one to undo a move that would have maintained the South Florida Water Management District’s tax rate, which drew wide public support. The new decision eliminates about $21 million from the district’s $754 million budget, forcing the district to pull more than $7 million from reserves.

Sandy Batchelor-Robjohns, chairman of the Miami Beach-based Batchelor Foundation, remained the lone holdout, arguing that “we’re chipping away at the financial foundation of this great agency.”

The decision marks the fifth year in a row the agency has bowed to pressure from Tallahassee to cut taxes, even as Everglades restoration picks up speed and sea rise projections predict more stress on the 16-county district.

In changing their decision, board members said the state needs to take a bigger role in footing the bill. Next year, the district expects to spend half its budget, or about $371 million, said executive director Blake Guillory, on restoration work that stretches from the Kissimmee River south to Biscayne Bay. Of that, the state pays the district $181 million, with about $126 million going toward Everglades work.

“Since [the Everglades] is a statewide treasure, wouldn’t it be appropriate that the cost is shared statewide?” said board member James Moran, a Palm Beach County attorney, who has consistently voted to cut taxes.

But critics of the move say depending on the legislature for help is a risky gamble.

“The reason this agency has taxing authority is because the work is too critical to be at the whim of the Legislature,” said Lisa Interlandi, senior attorney at the Everglades Law Center.

This year, Gov. Rick Scott asked legislators for $150 million for Everglades work as apart of 20-year plan intended to raise $5 billion. But legislators authorized only $82 million, despite a voter-approved amendment to pump $743 million into environmental spending statewide.

By whittling down the agency, Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds warned the board risks ultimately “privatizing our water supply. It’s really a shame because private entities are not going to protect our resources and restore our Everglades.”

While the district expects to complete more work than ever next year, Guillory said some projects may need to be postponed to deal with the shrinking budget. Guillory suggested handing off some tasks — including land management and monitoring — to state agencies, a move critics say spells trouble considering the downsizing of the state’s environmental protection agency. The district could also have the state take over paying off the debt on Everglades work already done.

“Should we be spending money for these projects out of reserves? That’s what concerns me,” Moran said.

The district should also finish old projects before taking on any new work, Accursio said.

“What is the most important project to move forward with? Because I’m seeing $50 million in new projects,” he asked.

Environmentalists worry that slowing down restoration work will only cause more damage to an ecosystem already damaged by years of flood control and choked by invasive species and polluted water.

“The National Academy of Sciences has already stated that we’re not doing work fast enough,” said Audubon Florida Everglades policy associate Tabitha Cale. “If we don’t see [progress] sooner, we’re going to see irreversible harm.”

Speakers during the brief hearing also wondered why the board voted to cut taxes when so many supported maintaining a rate that amounts to about 38 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value.

“How often have you been to a meeting where citizens got up and unanimously said, ‘Please don’t reduce my tax rate?’ There’s got to be something behind that,” said former St. Lucie County Commissioner Charles Grande.

Environmentalists, many of whom are meeting this week in Sanibel, also complained that the meeting was called with little notice.

“There would have been 50 speakers if this was a regular governing board meeting,” Reynolds said. “We thought they were breaking the law by having it so quickly and not advertizing it. But apparently they’re not.”

After the vote, a spokeswoman for Scott said the board "did the right thing."