South Florida water board reduces tax rates
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.