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Friday, Mar 24, 2017
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Cuts viewed as a threat to ecology

Environmentalists across Florida are livid about budget cutbacks for the five water management districts, and they predict that the cuts will result in an inevitable decline in the quality of the state's ecology. It's all, environmentalists say, so the average taxpayer can save $20 to $30 a year on a residential tax bill. Perhaps the hardest hit will be the ongoing project to restore the Florida Everglades. The proposed slashing of the South Florida Water Management District's budget by Gov. Rick Scott and a Republican Legislature has left scores of scientists working on the project without jobs. Audubon of Florida spokesman Eric Draper said state-funded initiatives to restore the Everglades will be severely affected. He suspects that eventually the cuts will lead to "the Everglades restoration grinding to a halt."
Across the state, $700 million was trimmed from the proposed budgets of the five water management districts, which are responsible for protecting the state's water resources, and more cuts may be on the way. "I just don't see how you can cut $700 million and still protect the environment," Draper said. When Scott was elected last year, the Swiftmud governing board saw changes coming and had begun a review of its organizational and salary structure, which is what Scott suggested in a letter last week sent to the board's chairman. The Swiftmud board had submitted a proposed operating budget to the state earlier this month of $157.7 million, compared with $280 million in the current fiscal year. "We had to prioritize," said district spokeswoman Robyn Felix. She said reductions were made in all areas, including personnel, projects and cooperative funding to local governments. And more cuts are likely. Though he praised Swiftmud for its programs and initiatives, Scott, in the letter sent Wednesday to the district's board, said more money must be pared from the reserve funds and from salaries and benefits packages. That could mean layoffs and buyouts. Already, the district is cutting its staff. Its 897 full-time positions have been trimmed to 796. By Oct. 1, the district hopes to cut 34 more positions by offering severance packages to eligible employees. If Swiftmud gets to that number, it will have reduced its staff by 14 percent. That puts the workforce at 1995 levels, according to an Aug. 1 letter from Bill Bilenky, the district's interim director, to the governor. Other cost savings include squeezing more life out of vehicles and computers. Funding for contractors was slashed by $46 million, or 62 percent. Scott ordered that no executive directors make more than $165,000 a year. Outgoing Swiftmud Director Dave Moore, who announced his resignation in May after eight years, made an annual salary of nearly $195,000. Herschel T. Vinyard Jr., secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said last week that the trimming of the budgets won't impact too severely the goal of the districts, which is to protect the state's water resources — rivers, lakes or groundwater reserves. Though $700 million was cut, he said, there remains more than $1 billion allocated to the districts. "Effective and efficient water management is essential to a healthy economy and a healthy environment," Vinyard said. "These budget reductions are an important first step in ensuring that the water management districts focus on their core environmental missions, and the reductions reflect a significant savings for Florida taxpayers." Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club, said: "A cut of that magnitude is really going to hurt the ability of the water management districts to provide services to the taxpayers and it's going to cut out important environmental land resource programs. "If that's true," he said, "it's a pity." Jonathan Ullman, spokesman for the Sierra Club in South Florida, in a blog posted last week bemoaned the laying off of hundreds of scientists who have been working on restoring the Everglades. "We have only one question to ask," Ullman said. "Who will restore the Everglades without them?" He called the budget slashing "a systematic dismantling of environmental regulatory agencies throughout the state. It was a direct attack on nature." Jon Steverson, the Department of Environmental Protection's special counsel on policy and legislative affairs, said in a letter to water districts in July that in hard times, it's difficult for residents to pay for programs some consider unnecessary. "We cannot ask Floridians who are struggling to find work and provide for their families to continue to support the mission of the Department of Environmental Protection or the districts if we are not spending their tax dollars wisely," Steverson wrote. The districts were advised to spend what they take in and not incur new debt. The state also does not want districts building massive reserves and wants to limit those funds to two months' operating expenses. Last year's Swiftmud budget of $279.8 million was more than $19 million less than the year before and represented a 6.4 percent reduction, mainly because of reduced tax revenue.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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