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Crist's Everglades sugar deal bogs down in fiscal swamp

With odds of borrowing a half-billion bucks growing dicey, water managers are exploring new ways to finance Gov. Charlie Crist's deal with the U.S. Sugar Corp. — a controversial land buy he stood firmly behind Thursday during a South Florida visit.

One possible alternative: pay for much, maybe all, of the $536 million price tag in cash. But that could require major, and politically messy, cuts to the South Florida Water Management District's $1.5 billion budget.

An internal "financial options" memo produced this month by a water district executive contemplates an array of potential cuts: canceling or postponing nearly a dozen Everglades restoration projects, slashing salaries, selling a plane, closing a laboratory, selling state-owned land, downsizing the deal by selling thousands of acres of U.S. Sugar groves.

Water managers said the memo is just intended to help board members decide whether they can still afford the deal.

Crist's deal, already downsized twice, has been under siege from rival sugar growers, the Miccosukee Tribe and some state lawmakers who say it amounts to a bailout for a struggling, influential agriculture giant, and would set back restoration efforts.

Tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen brandished the memo at a federal court hearing on Everglades cleanup, calling it "an order to buy the sugar land, no matter how much it costs."

Water board chairman Eric Buermann said the agency wouldn't do the deal if it would bust the budget, or jeopardize restoration, flood control and supply water. "We're not his rubber stamp," Buermann said.

In addition to securing 72,500 acres of citrus groves and sugar fields, the deal includes options to buy 107,000 acres for about $794 million. Plans call for converting the land into reservoirs and water-treatment marshes.

Last week, the board extended an expiring deadline on the deal but acknowledged that bleak financial projections threaten plans to bankroll it with bonds.

An outside financial adviser has warned that declining property tax revenue and mounting deficits could limit the credit line and force "very difficult decisions." And on April 7, the state Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal of a lawsuit challenging the bonding plan.

Robert Coker, a U.S. Sugar vice president, said the company has not discussed downsizing options with the district and is focused on the bottom line, not how it might get paid.

"We're a seller," he said. "It doesn't matter if it is a bank check, a money order, a cashier's check, a personal check or cash."

Crist's Everglades sugar deal bogs down in fiscal swamp 03/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2010 10:27pm]
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