Floridians deserve to know how the state's special taxing districts are spending public money. The review ordered Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott can be a learning experience, but it should not be a witch hunt aimed at gutting their effectiveness or their missions.
Scott issued an executive order calling on his budget office to examine the management and spending practices at the 1,615 special taxing districts across the state. These agencies are small units of government that raise money for the specific needs of individual communities, from child care and street lighting to mosquito control. Scott said the review would "allow us to identify ways to save taxpayer money and increase accountability." Perhaps. The real focus should be on conducting a fair review of what these districts do and how well they spend public money to fulfill their mission.
Because they typically handle smaller budgets than most city and county governments, special districts operate below the radar. But Scott should not presume at the outset that all of these districts are needless and a waste of money. Special districts arise from the desire of communities to address unique public needs. Rural areas may tax themselves to protect farms and water sources. Cities have created revenue streams for libraries, affordable housing and child protection programs. These agencies, in many cases, are overseen by civic leaders and represent the epitome of local control.
A similar review Scott ordered of the state's water management districts led to the governor and Legislature ordering sweeping budget cuts at those agencies — cuts that led to a downgrade this week in the credit rating of the water management district in South Florida, which is running the Everglades restoration effort. The governor needs to avoid causing similar damage to the special districts. Improving their operation is one thing; gutting their tax base and undermining their mission is another.