State claims to slash water management district budget $700 million this year
In response to the legislature's budget cuts, Gov. Rick Scott and the Department of Environmental Protection said Wednesday they are slashing spending on Florida's water management districts by $700 million, the bulk of it in South Florida.
DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said that the cuts in the 2011-12 budget will not interfere with the agency’s commitment to crucial water protection programs such as Everglades restoration.
"We're looking for projects to give the environment the most bang for the buck," Vinyard said at a news conference.
The new budget devotes $110 million to Everglades restoration, taps $350 million in reserves to pay for water quality projects in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Calooshahatchee watersheds.
Vinyard said many of the reductions were because of the state's decision to halt the sale of bonds to buy land, adjust salary and benefits which he called "among the most lucrative in government," and cut district staff, and reduce membership fees and conference sponsorships.
Scott has touted the fact that the water management district reductions will enable districts to cut local property taxes by $210.5 million in 2012.
But Audubon of Florida director Eric Draper called the savings a false number. "They are inflating their claims by claiming they are saving money they never intended to spend," he said.
Draper called the budget "a political deal that allows policians to claim tax cuts while not being candid about how the cuts will affect the environment." He commended the governor for continuing to keep Everglades restoration a priority but criticized the administration for making a marginal financial commitment to the project.
"Everglades restoration is a program of $10 billion in costs and they're bragging about putting $100 million into it,'' he said. "It's a tiny payment on a huge obligation."
Everglades Foundation CEO Kurt Fordham, however, praised the budget for sparing the Everglades restoration projects and continuing the state's commitment by spending $110 million next year to help with clean-up decades of pollution. In June, he had criticized the 50-cent-a-week tax cut in the face of a water supply shortage as "an insult to the people of South Florida."
"We are pleasantly surprised,’’ Fordham told reporters Wednesday. "Considering what kind of economic climate we’re in right now, I think the district has done a good job cutting the fat out of the budget and maintaining their commitment to Everglades restoration.."
The largest reduction in the SFWMD's revised budget -- $194.2 million -- was because one-time land purchases made by the district last year which are now complete as well as $96.7 million in debt reduction.
The savings also includes $96.7 million in so-called "debt avoidance," which is also not being spent this year because no land will be purchased. Employee benefits also account for another chunk of savings: the district slashed salaries and benefits $35.7 million, $4.2 million in deferred compensation to employees and ended the practice of buying out employee sick leave, saving another $3.9 million.
In addition to the SFWMD's focus on Everglades restoration, he said other districts will focus on the key projects despite the cutbacks:
* The North Florida Water Management District will continue to focus on more reliable regional water supply system.
* The Suwanne Water Management District will continue removing polluting nutrients from their water bodies, increase water monitoring data and and establish minimum flow levels in rivers and streams.
* The St. John's Water Management District will continue water quality improvements in Lake Apopka and the St. John's River and create a 10,000-acre water management area that will provide water quality and quantity improvements.
* The Southwest Florida Water Management District will develop alternative water supplies, including a $4.1 million system for the Tampa Bay.
* The South Florida Water Management District will implement several projects to benefit Everglades restoration from additional water storage project for the northern Everglades to construction of additional treatment areas to improve water qualities.
"We recognize this is a critical first step in ensuring water management districts focus on their core environmental mission,'' Vinyard said, noting that those core responsibilities are ensuring a reliable water supply, flood protection and natural system protection.
But Draper challenged those claims. The budget does not commit money into protection natural systems, for example, when it eliminates district planning departments that kept developers from building in wetlands.
"This is where we see this administration backing away from 30 years of commitment to water protection,'' he said.
Vinyard said that two other priorities he will emphasis are: regulatory certainty, in which the state enforces the law and expects the public to follow it, and "get the water right" by ensuring water quality and quantity.