South Flor­ida water board re­duces tax rates

Palm Beach Daily News - - TODAY - By KIM­BERLY MILLER

South Flor­ida prop­erty own­ers will see re­duced tax rates from the water man­age­ment dis­trict for the eighth straight year.

In a nearly unanimous vote last week, the South Flor­ida Water Man­age­ment Dis­trict’s gov­ern­ing board ap­proved an $813.9 mil­lion bud­get that in­cludes a re­duc­tion in the tax rate for the 16 coun­ties it rep­re­sents. The re­duc­tion, which amounts to 5.3 per­cent for most prop­erty own­ers, en­sures that even though prop­erty val­ues have in­creased, res­i­dents will pay the same, or slightly less, than the pre­vi­ous year.

That means a tax of $29 per $100,000 of tax­able prop­erty value for 15 coun­ties, in­clud­ing Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lu­cie.

The lone dis­senter in the 7-1 vote Tues­day was Boyn­ton Beach at­tor­ney and Palm Beach County rep­re­sen­ta­tive James Moran, who was ap­pointed to the board in 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott. Board mem­ber Jaime Weisinger was ab­sent.

Moran, a self-de­scribed “con­ser­va­tive tea party guy,” and ad­vo­cate for smaller gov­ern­ment, said he couldn’t ap­prove a bud­get that didn’t at least keep the tax rate the same as the pre­vi­ous year.

“We need more money, we’re broke,” Moran said in a July meet­ing about the pro­posed tax rate. “When I first came on the board, we had $400 to $500 mil­lion in what I call un­re­stricted re­serves, but we’ve spent that down for restora­tion pro­jects and other pro­jects to what is now be­low $60 mil­lion and we are still only col­lect­ing the same amount we were eight to nine years ago.”

The dis­trict has been in cost-cut­ting mode since 2011, which in­cluded los­ing hun­dreds of em­ploy­ees to lay­offs and buy­outs.

In 2009, the dis­trict had 1,828 full-time em­ploy­ees.

The 2018-2019 bud­get, which is about 7 per­cent higher than that of the pre­vi­ous year, in­cludes 1,475 em­ploy­ees — a nearly 20 per­cent re­duc­tion in the past decade.

Prop­erty taxes make up about 34 per­cent of the dis­trict’s bud­get. Other fund­ing sources in­clude li­censes, fees, agri­cul­tural taxes, state and fed­eral money and in­vest­ment in­come.

Keep­ing the tax rate

the same this year would raise an ad­di­tional $15 mil­lion that Moran said could be used for re­pairs and main­te­nance to the dis­trict’s flood con­trol sys­tem, em­ployee raises and bonuses, in­va­sive plant con­trol and up­grades to the dis­trict’s fleet of ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing con­struc­tion equip­ment.

“It’s one thing to cut back to the bone and still be able to run ef­fi­ciently, but it’s an­other thing to have the bud­get so lean you are not ad­e­quately do­ing flood con­trol or re­ward­ing em­ploy­ees who de­serve bet­ter bonuses and raises,” Moran said this week.

Although no one from the pub­lic spoke at Tues­day’s 15-minute bud­get hear­ing, Moran’s sen­ti­ment was echoed by two peo­ple dur­ing the July meet­ing.

Nyla Pipes, a mem­ber of the dis­trict’s Water Re­sources Anal­y­sis Coali­tion and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the One Flor­ida Foun­da­tion, and Cara Capp, Ever­glades restora­tion pro­gram man­ager for the Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, urged board mem­bers to keep the tax rate the same. Re­duc­ing the tax rate is called the “roll­back rate.”

Pipes men­tioned this sum­mer’s al­gae plague on Lake Okee­chobee and in both north­ern es­tu­ar­ies as a rea­son to main­tain the tax rate.

“Lit­er­ally, at this mo­ment, we have dec­la­ra­tions of emer­gency in this state, and it’s time to rec­og­nize the econ­omy is get­ting bet­ter and Florid­i­ans will stand be­hind you if you con­tinue do­ing the good work you’re do­ing,” Pipes said.

Gov­ern­ing Board Chair­man Fed­erico Fer­nan­dez said in a July press re­lease, af­ter the board ten­ta­tively ap­proved the re­duced tax rate, that elim­i­nat­ing nonessen­tial costs and lim­it­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive over­head al­lowed the dis­trict to “achieve flood pro­tec­tion, water sup­ply and en­vi­ron­men­tal restora­tion” with­out rais­ing taxes.

Moran has been the lone voice on the board with con­cerns re­gard­ing the up­keep of dis­trict flood con­trol sys­tems, re­peat­edly point­ing to a year­long re­view by the in­spec­tor gen­eral that found the an­nual al­lot­ment set aside for re­pairs should be about $88.5 mil­lion.

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