CLEVELAND, Fla. — Even after paring down its operating budget by some $20 million per year, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has retained the wherewithal to invest $40 million to $60 million into regional water projects, at least for the next five years, according to district executive director Blake Guillory.
“We are a project-driven district,” he said.
Guillory was interviewed about district funding after a ceremony Thursday to dedicate the completion of a regional water supply pipeline across the Peace River. Of the pipeline’s $20 million cost, the 16-county district paid $7 million, the state $5 million, and Charlotte County nearly $8 million.
Punta Gorda a month ago briefly considered relaunching a recently postponed $28 million project to build a well field and a reverse-osmosis water plant. The goal would be to blend the plant’s purified water with the city’s supply from Shell Creek to reduce levels of minerals, which exceed state standards during dry seasons.
Some city council members questioned whether the water district, which has funded up to 50 percent of such projects in the past, would have the money for the RO plant in future years.
Punta Gorda had originally conceived its RO project several years ago when real estate was booming. However, demand projections fell amid the economic downturn.
Punta Gorda wasn’t the only local government that cancelled or delayed water projects, said Guillory. This year, local governments cancelled $42 million in projects. That allows the district to roll funds earmarked for those projects into future project, he said.
The district also receives roughly $100 million per year in property tax revenues. The district spends $75 million on operations and allocates $25 million for projects, in ballpark figures, Guillory explained.
The district also has about $400 million in reserves for projects. Of that, about $185 million is encumbered for projects approved in the past. That leaves about $215 million for new projects, he said.
Last year, the district spent $58 million on its shares in $120 million worth of projects. This year, the district expects to spend about the same, he said.
Dorian Popescu, a senior vice president for DMK Associates, the engineering firm that designed the Peace River pipeline, pointed out the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority received some $200 million out of $1.2 billion spent by the district on water projects within the past 15 years.
That’s a “fantastic” investment in this region’s water infrastructure, he said.
“Believe me, if they were starting (the new pipeline) now, they would be hurting to get the money,” he said.
However Guillory expressed confidence such project funding will continue to be a priority.
The district streamlined operations by focusing on its “core missions,” he pointed out. Those are: flood control, water quality, water supply and associated natural systems.
With that focus, the district found it no longer needed many of its 100 “administrative assistants.” Employee ranks were cut from 800 to about 600, he said. Other expenses, such as for 200 cars and a tow truck, were also trimmed, he said.
“This budget cut forced us to get efficient,” he said. “But, are we going to cut projects? No.”