Gov. Rick Scott complimented the state's five water management districts Wednesday on cutting $700 million from their budgets and laying off hundreds of employees.
Then he told four of them — including the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which controls the water supply for the Tampa Bay area — to cut even more. And he told the agencies exactly where to cut, too: salaries and operating reserves.
In a statement, Scott said those additional cuts "are just the first steps in ensuring that Florida's precious water resources are protected and managed in the most fiscally responsible way possible."
Cutting so much money from the budget will not hurt the agency's core missions of protecting the environment and safeguarding the water supply, state officials said.
Instead they are designed to "give the environment the most bang for the buck," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said in a 15-minute news conference at which he took five questions from reporters.
But Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida said the announcement was just "putting lipstick on a pig" — trying to put a good face on the fact that the state had slashed the funding of the agencies in charge of making sure there's enough clean water for everyone to drink.
"It's a dark day for Florida's water resources," he said.
And Audubon's Eric Draper said Scott's $700 million figure was inflated, because nearly $300 million of it consisted of money the South Florida water district spent on Everglades-related work last year that wasn't going to be carried over to this year anyway.
The agency commonly known as Swiftmud, which oversees water resources in a 16-county region on the state's west coast, has already cut $122 million from its $279.8 million budget, leaving $157.7 million, and will likely lay off 30 employees.
Scott, in a letter to Swiftmud chairman Paul Senft, ordered cuts totaling another $4.2 million. He cut $2.4 million from Swiftmud's reserve fund and took the rest out of salaries. However, Brett Cyphers, the DEP's water management budget director, said cutting the reserve fund isn't a true cut, because the money will be redirected into other Swiftmud projects.
Emilio "Sonny" Vergara, Swiftmud's former executive director and a Republican, said Scott was forcing Floridians to take "a terrible gamble" by dismantling a regional water district system that had been working for 40 years. "He is centralizing water management at the state level to be controlled from Tallahassee by him."
The only agency Scott did not order to make further cuts was the largest of the five, the South Florida Water Management District, which is in charge of Everglades restoration. That agency laid off 135 employees this month, including such top Everglades scientists such as Christopher McVoy.
McVoy said Scott's cuts at the South Florida district — and the subsequent brain drain from the layoffs — resulted in his tax bill dropping by $4.70, which he said worked out to "three cups of coffee in exchange for trashing Everglades restoration."
Capping top salaries
On Wednesday Scott ordered all five water districts to cap their executive salaries at the same level. Dave Moore, who resigned as Swiftmud's executive director in May, had earned $194,875, and South Florida water district director Carol Wehle earned $202,000 before she quit this spring. But Scott said that now executive directors can make no more than $165,000.
To Lee of Audubon of Florida, setting the pay of the executive directors at the identical level, no matter how big the agency, is "revealing about the governor's lack of knowledge."
Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said the agency had just received Scott's letter and would work with the DEP "to follow the direction in the letter."
In addition to issuing permits allowing developers, farmers and businesses to tap into the aquifer and wipe out wetlands, Swiftmud also helps pay for projects such as Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant and reservoir. Tampa Bay Water is hoping to get millions of more dollars from Swiftmud to expand the reservoir by 3 billion gallons, but Scott's cuts may jeopardize that plan.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.