In response to the legislature's budget cuts, Gov. Rick Scott and the Department of Environmental Protection said Wednesday they are slashing spending on Florida's water management districts by $700 million, the bulk of it in South Florida.
The cuts were necessary to produce the $210.5 million property tax cuts in 2012 ordered up by the governor and legislators but DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said that the cuts will not interfere with the agency’s commitment to crucial water protection programs such as Everglades restoration.
"We're looking for projects to give the environment the most bang for the buck," Vinyard said at a news conference.
Vinyard said many of the cost savings were possible because of the state's decision to halt the sale of bonds to buy land, adjust salary and benefits which he called "among the most lucrative in government," cut district staff, and reduce membership fees and conference sponsorships.
But Audubon of Florida director Eric Draper called the estimated $700 million in savings a false number. “They are inflating their claims by claiming they are saving money they never intended to spend,” he said.
The largest reduction in the SFWMD's revised budget -- $194.2 million -- was because one-time land purchases made by the district last year which are now complete as well as $96.7 million in debt reduction.
The savings also includes $96.7 million in so-called "debt avoidance," which is also not being spent this year because no land will be purchased, as well as completed construction projects, said South Florida district director Melissa Meeker. Employee benefits also account for another chunk of savings: the district slashed salaries and benefits $35.7 million, $4.2 million in deferred compensation to employees and ended the practice of buying out employee sick leave, saving another $3.9 million.
Draper commended the governor for continuing to keep Everglades restoration a priority but criticized the administration for making a marginal financial commitment to the project.
"Everglades restoration is a program of $10 billion in costs and they're bragging about putting $100 million into it,'' he said. "It's a tiny payment on a huge obligation."
Everglades Foundation CEO Kurt Fordham, however, praised the budget for sparing the Everglades restoration projects and continuing the state's commitment by spending $110 million next year to help with clean-up decades of pollution. In June, he had criticized the 50-cent-a-week tax cut in the face of a water supply shortage as “an insult to the people of South Florida.”
“Considering what kind of economic climate we’re in right now, I think the district has done a good job cutting the fat out of the budget and maintaining their commitment to Everglades restoration,’’ he said.
Meeker said she and the governor are committed to considering other options to accomplish the same restoration goals and believes the state is moving as aggressively as possible to clean-up the pollution.
“I believe we put together a budget that very clearly moves Everglades restoration forward, very clearly addresses water supply needs as well as protects our natural systems,’’ she said. “We can no longer be the agency everyone turns to when you have a little project you want done.”