TALLAHASSEE — Faced with mounting evidence that sea level rise and intensifying storms will cost Florida governments billions into the future, Gov. Ron DeSantis this week announced a $1 billion investment over four years to allow local governments to build new infrastructure to address the impacts.
If the Legislature approves the new program, “Resilient Florida” will use revenues from the state documentary stamp tax to pay for the debt service on $1 billion in bonds for projects that address the impacts of climate change.
“The purpose of this is to tackle the challenges posed by flooding, intensifying storm events and sea level rise,” DeSantis said at a Thursday news conference to announce his proposal for a record $96.6 billion state budget.
“We believe that this makes a lot of economic sense,’' he said. He added that the goal is “trying to get ahead” of rising property insurance costs by allowing local governments to finance projects.
The proposal says that projects could range from preserving land to building sea walls to address the impact of sea level rise on dozens of government structures and services. The list includes everything from wastewater treatment, water supply, stormwater management, emergency response centers, transportation infrastructure, healthcare, military bases, public housing and public education facilities.
The Department of Environmental Protection will manage the program, but DeSantis wants to create a non-profit private entity, called the Resiliency Florida Financing Corp., to handle the financing. DEP would distribute $165.7 million in grants in the first year and spend $1.7 million to fund 15 positions at DEP.
Another $12.1 million would be used to provide grants to coastal counties, coastal municipalities and inland counties that have not completed vulnerability assessments related to the threat of sea level rise.
Priority will be given to local governments that get matching funds from local or federal sources, the governor’s staff said.
Although the Sunshine State has more people and expensive real estate along the coast than any other state, money for the hard infrastructure to protect its shoreline has been hard to come by.
A new report commissioned by the South Florida Climate Compact found that if the region doesn’t adapt to climate change, the damage could exceed $38 billion by 2070.
The report found that investing money in adaptation was worth it, not just for the lives saved and misery avoided but also for the jobs created and property protected. A recent report by the American Flood Coalition and John Hopkins University suggests that an investment of $1 billion could create up to 40,000 jobs.
But federal money for climate adaptation has been sparse and local governments have had to come up with the cash on their own. In Monroe County, where elevating half of its roads out of the path of rising seas is estimated to cost $1.8 billion, officials are considering new bonds and higher taxes.
Monroe County Chief Resilience Officer Rhonda Hagg said a program like Resilient Florida would be welcomed in the Keys, which is “at the top of the list in need.”
“It would help us help ourselves,” she said. “This is an investment in our communities. It’s going to maintain our infrastructure and tax base. Everybody wins.”
And in Miami-Dade, which also faces a multi-billion dollar adaptation bill, Chief Resilience Officer James Murley said he was “appreciative and supportive” of the proposal.
Murley said that a steady source of state funds for adaptation could spur local governments to pursue their own bonds to match the state money, like Florida cities and counties did with the land conservation program Florida Forever.
“The fact that in the middle of a COVID recession and all that we hear about scarce resources, to have these kinds of commitments from the governor for the legislature to consider is really significant,” he said. “Certainly, I can’t imagine the governor of Texas would be presenting anything like this.”
Until now, Florida’s main contribution to resilience efforts was the Florida Resilient Coastlines Program which spent its $5.5 million budget on grants to help local governments plan for sea level rise.
“Coming off a record-breaking hurricane season, the need for investment in resilience has never been more urgent,” said Melissa Roberts, executive director of the American Flood Coalition, in a statement. “Resilient infrastructure not only helps our communities prepare for the future, it also drives economic growth.”
Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida executive director, said that bonding revenues from property transactions makes sense when interest rates are low and documentary stamp tax revenues are rising in Florida.
“Bonding makes common sense for things like investments in resilience and land conservation where future prices are likely to be radically higher than they are today,’' she said. “Locking in today’s costs, even with debt service payments, ends up being a better deal for taxpayers in the long run on investments that in the future will be radically more expensive or no longer available.”
The governor’s proposed budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which begins July 1, serves only as a recommendation to lawmakers. The Florida Legislature writes the state budget and it is the only bill it is required to pass when lawmakers meet for the 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee each year. This year’s legislative session begins March 2.
The governor’s proposed budget also includes $50 million in beach nourishment funding to continue addressing shoreline erosion and $10 million for a Resilient Coastlines Program within DEP to help communities plan for sea level rise and obtain grants to protect Florida’s coral reefs which serve as a natural line of defense against storm surge.