Water-funding debate leaves officials guessing
While a debate over whether Florida should continue to constrain funding for water resources swirled in Tallahassee this month, some local officials were left guessing whether funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, will be available for their local water projects.
Punta Gorda utility director Tom Jackson, for example, was hard-pressed to provide his council with an answer this week when asked whether the city’s chance of winning district grants for the proposed $28 million reverse-osmosis water plant project would be better or worse in a few years.
Jackson pointed out that, while district revenue has fallen by a third in the past couple of years, its pace of spending on such water projects throughout its 16-county district has speeded up.
“Some say that could mean less funding in the future,” Jackson said. “Others say, with streamlining, the district will be able to continue funding the projects,” he said Friday.
Jackson was one of several local officials asked for their views on the water-district funding controversy this week, after Swiftmud adopted a $159.5 million budget. The budget calls for no change in the district’s property tax rate, which had been cut by some 30 percent in 2011.
“Over the long term, the district has identified adequate fiscal resources to address the core mission areas,” said Robyn Felix, district spokeswoman. She was referring to the district’s water-supply, water-quality and flood-protection missions.
In a joint letter to Gov. Rick Scott on Sept. 17, some 20 former water district board members — including several from Southwest Florida — urged the state to “restore funding” not only for water-supply projects, but also to protect the environment.
“Protecting and restoring Florida’s treasured ecosystems drive our economy,” the former board members wrote.
That sparked a response this week from all five current water district chairs. In a joint Sept. 24 rebuttal sent to media by the Governor’s Office, the chairs argued the water districts need to be refocused because an economic boom had turned into a recession.
“During the past decade, intensive growth in Florida added significant resources to the annual budgets of the water-management districts, allowing the districts to expand beyond their core mission,” the chairs wrote.
Steve Fabian, a city utility advisory committee member, pointed out Scott also recently directed the water districts to spend down their reserves. Where that leaves Punta Gorda’s project, he’s not certain.
Fabian also points out Swiftmud also abolished the Peace River Basin, which had prioritized local projects. He also pointed out the district’s governing board has no members from Charlotte County.
“I’m concerned about a lack of representation,” he said.
Charlotte County Commissioner Robert Skidmore, who chairs the four-county Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, said the district’s funding for projects was “like a pie.” The number of pieces is limited.
The Charlotte County Commission on Tuesday voted to ask for its next piece: a grant for a $2 million reuse water line from a Port Charlotte sewer plant to West County, he noted.
Skidmore was not concerned, however, that Charlotte County has a lack of representation on the district board. He said members from Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties pay close attention to county and water authority proposals.
Because property values in the 16-county water district declined 2.9 percent, its revenue will drop by $3 million in 2013. District Executive Director Blake Guillory announced a plan Friday to “undergo organizational restructuring” in response.
Some 30 of the district’s 617 employees may see their positions eliminated. Most of those jobs are in administrative staff, according to Guillory.
The budget includes $25 million for new water sources, $21 million for surface-water improvements, and $18 million for data and monitoring.