PINELLAS PARK — State Rep. Janet Long figuratively pounced on a lobbyist Wednesday, accusing him of changing his story about the work being done by a little-known taxing district.
The legislator's sharp words came during a meeting of the Pinellas legislative delegation while members were discussing Long's proposal to sunset the Pinellas Park Water Management District. Long, D-Seminole, wants voters who live within the boundaries to decide whether the district has served its purpose. It was created in the mid 1970s to solve major flooding problems in the Pinellas Park area.
Water district officials don't want the district dismantled. They had David Ramba, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Special Districts, plead their case to legislators. Among other things, Ramba referred to 10 projects the entity is working on.
Long perked up at the comment.
"I am sitting here absolutely stunned that you are telling me 10 more projects," Long snapped. A year ago, she said, Ramba came to her office and told her the district had "one last project." Yet now, she said, "you're sitting here (telling me) 10."
Ramba said he was only reading from a report written by the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Long had asked the agency to investigate the water district to see whether it had served its purpose. The agency suggested the district had done so and could be abolished when it finishes its current projects. The accountability office estimated that the district has spent $47-million on projects and will spend an estimated $17.4-million more by 2010-2011, when its current projects are scheduled to be finished.
Long and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, are seeking to do just that. The county legislative delegation must first vote on it. That is scheduled for January. If it passes the delegation, the Legislature would vote on it and, if it passes, voters in the water management district would let their views be known in a referendum. If the voters decide the district should be dismantled, it would cease operations Oct. 1, 2012.
Ramba, the district and Pinellas Park officials are reluctant to see it go. They say the district needs to continue operating to pay for maintenance of the drainage system it has built.
But residents of unincorporated Pinellas, who are also part of the district, say they have been paying property taxes to the district for 33 years. They say it's time for the district and its property tax assessments to go away.
"It didn't take 32 years to build a pyramid," said Ray Neri, the head of the Lealman Community Association. Neri does not live in the district, but many members of his organization do.
It appears at this point that those who want to sunset the district may have their way.
State Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, praised Long, saying she had gone about examining the need for the district in the right way.
"This is a form of downsizing government in a responsible way," Jones said.
Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, agreed that the entity has outlived its usefulness. Frishe, who once lived in the Pinellas Park area, said he got his start in politics in part by urging the district's creation in the mid 1970s. The goal was to stop major flooding, he said, not to simply get water off the streets.
"It had a very specific purpose," Frishe said. "It has unquestionably achieved its purpose. It should have reverted back to a maintenance operation some time ago, quite frankly."
Long's bill requires Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Kenneth City and Pinellas County to take over maintenance of the drainage infrastructure if the district folds. Those are the areas in the district's boundaries.
Frishe said he thinks the proposal "has a tremendous amount of support from the delegation."
But with a month to go before the vote, it's unclear what might happen. Both sides still have a chance to lobby delegation members. And Tuesday, the Pinellas Park council is scheduled to meet with water management officials. Water district officials occasionally meet with council members, but one of the items on the agenda this time is Long's bill to abolish the district.
The workshop is at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor of Pinellas Park City Hall. The workshop is open to the public, but comment is only taken if the council agrees to listen.