South Florida agency that leads Everglades restoration details potential budget cuts

Layoffs, delaying construction projects and selling off public land are among the budget-cutting options being considered by the state agency charged with leading Everglades restoration.

After years of criticism for excess spending, the South Florida Water Management District faces cutting costs by more than 30 percent due to new mandates from the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

That means cutting about $128 million in district costs.

On Thursday, new district Executive Director Melissa Meeker unveiled proposed cost-cutting measures that could mean big changes for the far-flung agency that oversees water issues in a 16-county region stretching from Orlando to the Keys.

Selling off some of the more than 1 million acres of district-owned land is on the table.

Monitoring and researching environmental conditions could be cut by $12 million.

Buyouts and layoffs are also planned to reduce the staff size at the largest of Florida’s five water management districts. The South Florida Water Management District has about 1,900 employees, up from more than 1,700 in 2006.

"We have some very tough decisions ahead of us," said Daniel DeLisi, another new Scott appointee to the district board. "We do need to consolidate where we can."

Meeker tried to reassure environmentalists worried about budget cuts by outlining a list of Everglades restoration projects that would remain priorities for the district. Those priority-projects include: expanding stormwater treatment areas, the Biscayne Bay Coastal wetlands projects, Picayune Strand and striking deals to store more stormwater on agricultural land.

Items left off Meeker’s priority list included what to do with 26,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land that the district last year bought for $197 million for Everglades restoration. The deal, which Scott opposed while running for office, also includes a 10-year option for the district to buy U.S. Sugar’s remaining 153,000 acres.

Meeker’s spending plan also didn’t include a proposal turn an unfinished reservoir in southwestern Palm Beach County, which already cost taxpayers nearly $280 million, into a smaller water storage or treatment area.

"We are looking at all options," Meeker said.

Other potential cuts include spending $10 million less – going down from $60 million to $50 million – on a backlog of maintenance work for aging levees, pumps and canals that protect South Florida from flooding.

Selling the district’s airplane, lessening the use of helicopters and scaling-back on offsite district meetings – expenses that drew past criticism – are among the cost cutting measures.

The budget cuts discussed Thursday were proposals that will come back to the district board in July for formal action. The district has to submit a proposed budget to the governor and Legislature by Aug. 1. The district gives final approval to its tax rate and budget in September and the spending plan takes effect Oct. 1.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad