Hillsborough County keeps finding ways to waste public money. The latest is a scheme to force taxpayers countywide to pay for sinkhole-related damage to private property that water-hogging farmers caused during the winter freeze. The county should put the brakes on the plan. It is ripe for abuse, and it shifts financial responsibility for the damage away from those who caused it.
County commissioners agreed last month to award grants up to $3,000 to residents whose property was damaged during last winter's record freeze. The cold spell — 11 straight days of temperatures below 34 degrees — prompted farmers in the east county areas of Dover and Plant City to pump billions of gallons of water from the ground onto their crops to form a protective layer of ice. The heavy pumping caused the aquifer level in that area to drop 60 feet, causing 750 local wells to run temporarily dry and sparking reports of more than 130 sinkholes.
The county grant is a well-meaning effort to help residents fix their properties or cover an insurance deductible. But while the policy is intended for those who suffered "as a result" of the excessive pumping, there is no requirement that applicants establish any link between the pumping and the sinkhole that damaged their property. Grants are open to anyone who merely shows that a sinkhole damaged their property between January and March. Nor is the grant open only to those in the Dover area; homeowners an hour away in the Carrollwood suburbs could apply, too. And the grants are not restricted to those who cannot afford to repair their property. Anyone can apply, regardless of income.
The overpumping left many residents in the eastern county in dire straits. But why is it fair to spread this monetary burden across residents countywide? The farmers who pumped the water need to pay these costs. They already are responsible. Under the water-use permits that allow farmers to pump from the ground, they are required to "not adversely" impact nearby properties and to "mitigate" any damage they do. The problem is that the agency that issues the permits, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, has no process for linking sinkholes to the pumping practices of any specific farmer.
The district needs to enforce the protections it has on the books. In the meantime, the county should not be forcing every taxpayer to pay for a bailout for anyone, anywhere who had sinkhole damage.