TAMPA — Despite pleas to continue it for another year, the Southwest Florida Water Management District board voted unanimously Tuesday to cut off further funding of the Florida Friendly Landscaping Program.
Without the $500,000 that the agency commonly known as Swiftmud was spending to help homeowners use less water for sprinkling their lawns, officials from 16 counties in the region will have to scramble to find their own funding or else shut down the program.
Swiftmud chief of staff David Rathke said the agency had announced in 2008 that it would phase out its funding for the program in five years, "and here we are in year five."
But officials from several counties said they had not been notified prior to last month that Swiftmud would be pulling its financial support.
"We're trying" to find funding to continue the program, said Doris Heitzmann, Pinellas County's Florida Friendly Landscaping outreach coordinator. "But it's very late in the process."
Representatives from Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Marion counties asked Swiftmud's board to continue funding for at least another year, giving them more time to find the $30,000 to $40,000 per county that Swiftmud had been supplying for a decade.
But Rathke said the agency wants to shift its support to a marketing program called Water Star that's aimed at persuading builders and developers to build homes and businesses that don't use so much water.
Swiftmud paid for a survey that found 77 percent of the people in the 16-county district had already heard of the Florida Friendly Landscaping Program, which Rathke said showed that it had reached a saturation point and "was starting to reach a diminishing return on our investment."
"People know Florida Friendly more than they know Swiftmud," said Swiftmud board member Todd Pressman, who represents Pinellas County on the board.
Pressman urged his colleagues to renew the program for one more year, to no avail.
"I can't believe Florida Friendly will fall off if we do this," said board member Randy Maggard, who represents Pasco County.
And board member Tommy Bronson of Hernando County said it was high time the program became self-supporting, rather than continuing to rely on state aid.
So Pressman ended up joining the others in voting for the $170 million proposed budget that excluded Florida Friendly.
The board also allowed its current once-a-week watering restrictions in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties to expire. And they agreed to promote assistant executive director Robert Beltran — who until March 2012 was an engineering consultant helping clients get state permits — to be their new executive director, replacing Blake Guillory, who is leaving to take the executive director post at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach.