In a move they said was dictated from Tallahassee, Southwest Florida Water Management District board members voted Tuesday to get rid of seven volunteer boards that help with everything from restoring Tampa Bay to planning for future water needs.
The seven basin boards had their own budgets and taxes, and some had been around longer than the water district itself. But as of May 31, they will all be gone.
The proposal to disband all the basin boards wasn't on the meeting agenda posted online, according to Todd Pressman, the district board member who cast the lone vote against. Instead, it came up during a discussion of ways to cut the budget.
But the leaders of the state agency commonly known as Swiftmud were well aware this was coming, Pressman said, and that it was being pushed by Gov. Rick Scott and his staff.
"It's been in the works from Tallahassee for a few months," said Pressman, a Clearwater political consultant and chairman of the Pinellas-Anclote River Basin Board.
Pressman said he opposed the change because no one seemed to know who would take over the basin boards' duties.
The Swiftmud member who made the motion to eliminate the basin boards, Neil Combee, agreed that the word came from Scott's staff to get rid of them.
"Their belief is that it will help streamline things and remove a layer of government," Combee said. He said he agreed with Scott's staff that "times have changed" and the basin boards were no longer necessary.
As a former basin board member, Combee said, he became convinced that the Swiftmud board itself can do the basin boards' job, cutting out a layer of bureaucracy.
Neither the basin board members nor the governing board members are paid, but the staff estimated that eliminating the basin boards would "save $350,000 to $400,000 annually," said Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix.
Swiftmud is facing a major cash crunch because the governor and Legislature ordered it to cut its taxes by 36 percent this year — more than any of the other five state water districts, said Pressman.
Among the negatives listed by the Swiftmud staff in a memo on eliminating the basin boards: "Removes local representation for local expenditure of local taxes." Among the pros: "Quick, clean and carries out the direction from the governor and Department of Environmental Protection."
The DEP did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Even among the basin board members, opinions were divided about whether their elimination was a good idea. Housh Ghovaee, a member of the Pinellas-Anclote board, called it a great loss, while Terry England, the Pinellas-Anclote board's vice chair, said he thought it was a good idea to downsize government whenever possible.
Still, England said, "we helped them keep their fingers on the pulse of what the citizens wanted on reclaimed water and who was having flood problems." For instance, he said, Pinellas-Anclote helped pay to clean up St. Petersburg's Clam Bayou.
He questioned how the Swiftmud board can provide the same representation of the region.
The basin boards were set up to cover sections of Swiftmud's 16-county region, stretching from Levy and Marion counties in the north to Charlotte County in the south and to Polk in the east. Each region covers the watershed or drainage basin for one of the waterways in that area.
The governor appoints the basin board members, who are confirmed by the state Senate. However, in recent years the appointment process has lagged, to the point where some boards were unable to get a quorum for legal meetings, Combee said.
Each basin board has the power to levy up to 50 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of property value, and the money can be spent only within that basin. Basin board tax money helped pay for such projects as Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant.
Gerald Seeber, general manager of Tampa Bay Water, worried that without the basin boards and their taxes, "fewer dollars will be available around the region to city and county government for new water supply projects."
However, since the utility isn't planning to build anything else for a while, Seeber said, "the impact will not be realized at our agency for several years."
The basin boards would have had $40 million to spend in 2012, Felix said. That money will now be handed out by the Swiftmud board instead, she said, although how that will work has yet to be determined.
"The basin boards are not a duplication" of what the governing board does, Pressman said. He said he has heard intense opposition to their elimination from local government officials throughout the region, but it was outweighed by political pressure from Tallahassee.