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Trick or treat? How politics, state funding affect Florida’s water management districts–

sjrwmd bldg
St Johns River Water Mamagement District headquarters. Photo by Jim Tatum

This is the third in the series “Messages from the Springs Heartland.”  Go to this link to see this article in the Gainesville Sun.

Trick or treat? How politics, state funding affect Florida’s water management districts

Ryan Smart
Guest Columnist
Oct. 29, 2021

A few months ago it looked like the springs, rivers, lakes and estuaries of Central and Northeast Florida were in for a treat. For the first time in a decade, the governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) directed staff not to roll back the property tax rate charged to fund the district’s core operations. This decision would mean millions of additional dollars would be available next year to protect and restore our ailing waters.

At a July 13 public meeting to propose the district’s 2021-2022 ad valorem tax rate and budget, current SJRWMD Vice-Chairman and former state Sen. Rob Bradley applauded the decision to maintain the current tax rate. “This is a big moment and I’m glad that we’re moving in this direction,” Bradley said.

Bradley suggested that the additional tax revenue was unnecessary because the district may receive more money than expected from federal funds passed down by the Florida Legislature. This reasoning fails to account for the enormous shortfall in funding for springs restoration projects.

If the district had maintained the 2007-2008 property tax rate, it would have raised approximately $800 million more dollars over the past 14 years. Just in the coming budget year alone, the district is leaving more than $110 million in property tax revenue on the table — money that is desperately needed to protect Florida’s water resources. This figure, which represents the lost funding for just one of the four water management districts responsible for protecting Florida’s springs, is more than twice the $50 million annual statewide springs appropriation provided by the Legislature.

These massive revenue and staff reductions, coupled with an unprecedented rollback of regulatory protections for water resources since 2010, paved the way for the water crisis we find in our area today.

As one former water management district staff member describes the problem, “Back in the late 2000s, staff at the St. Johns district really felt like we were holding our own, thinking that we were going to be able to continue positive trends in our surface water restoration efforts, and we were just starting to investigate the challenges to springs. The unprecedented staff and financial hits, frankly, were just far too much. And Florida’s water resources are now burdened with rather devastating and potentially irreversible results. Unfortunately, this same scenario has played out within all of the water management districts so our natural resources are paying the price statewide.”

Ryan Smart is executive director of the Florida Springs Council, a consortium of member organizations throughout Florida that is the only statewide group focused exclusively on advocacy for our world-class springs and rivers. He lives in Jacksonville. 

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