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Big cuts at water district draw muted reaction

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of August 11, 2011)

Ninety-five employees at the St. Johns River Water Management District – the agency that among other things makes and seeks to enforce water conservation rules for our area -- got pink slips last week after a couple dozen others took a retirement incentive, reducing district-wide staffing by about 18 per cent.

In the Palm Bay office, the water management district office closest to Vero Beach, 13 people got layoff notices and a couple long-timers such as Environmental Specialist Bob Day have taken the retirement option.

That will leave roughly 70 people to serve Indian River, Brevard, Okeechobee, Osceola and Volusia counties. The district-wide job cuts are slated to save taxpayers $12 million in the coming year. Total district cuts amount to $30 million of its current $115 million budget, or roughly 26 per cent.

The homeowner paying taxes on $500,000 in appraised value could see a reduction in the line item going to the district of about $45 due to the cuts.

To fiscal conservatives, the cuts go part of the way in putting the St. Johns River Water Management district back in its place.

An Orlando television station played the story this way on May 31 when legislation was passed mandating the budget reduction, "A tax cut is coming your way courtesy of the Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott. The St. Johns River Water Management District has been ordered to slim down."

County Commissioner Wesley Davis, for one, is not very broke up about the stripping of staffing at the district.

"It's a bureaucracy out of control," Davis said. "I hate to say it's about time, but I know what we've had to do with the budget and staffing at the county."

The Board of County Commissioners has implemented double-digit cuts the past three years and is looking at another budget of staff reductions and dipping into reserves. Staffing levels at the county are lower than they have been in about 25 years. Upon initial speculation last week that 16 of the roughly 85 people in the closest regional office had been terminated, Davis seemed rather unconcerned.

"If there were 16 people laid off from the Palm Bay office, I have a feeling that the sun will come up tomorrow," he said.

The move follows the decimation of the South Florida Water Management District and statewide cuts to agencies as part of Scott's initiative to trim the size of government -- especially the parts of it that regulate businesses and property owners.

Water management districts are funded via a combination of property taxes and permit fees, and both of those revenue sources have plummeted in the recent down economy and building slump. Local governments started reacting to the decreased revenues as early as 2008, but the larger the bureaucracy, the greater the power of inertia.

"We will definitely be streamlining what we do, but there shouldn't be a reduction in services," said local district spokesman Ed Garland last week. "We're streamlining down to our core mission of protecting water resources."

Instead of printing tens of millions of dollars worth of outreach and instructional material, Garland said the district is trying to go paperless, making full use of its website and social media. He said the once-brimming warehouse of inventory and equipment and vehicles once owned and used by district personnel has also been greatly reduced.

Garland said with a smaller budget and less staff the district will focus on large consumers of water and take some of the pressure off the little guy.

"We'll be simplifying the CUP (consumptive use permit) process with an emphasis on agricultural consumers and we're in the process of streamlining the reporting requirements for small users." He said large, local projects like the Fellsmere reservoir will not be delayed by the potential loss of personnel who have worked closely on the plans.

"The Fellsmere water management project is permitted and ahead of schedule, that project is going gangbusters," Garland said.

Fellsmere and the northwestern areas of the county have been the focus of a decades-long project to return the headwaters of the St. Johns River to as close to its natural state as possible.

Thousands of acres had been drained to grow citrus and to graze cattle back in Indian River County's heyday of the early to mid-20th century. Back in the days when the railroad ran through Fellsmere, more dry land was needed than was available so the marshes that used to filter stormwater and trickle it into the state's aquifers became groves and grasslands.

The South Florida Water Management District was established in 1949, with the Southwest Florida district to follow in 1961 and the St. Johns and two remaining districts in 1973 out of concern about how to balance the state's mushrooming development with the protection of vital natural resources.

As Florida grew in population density and government agencies devised a multitude of ways to regulate and permit and tax just about everything having to do with development, the scope of the St. Johns Water Management District expanded its political turf and its land holdings and morphed into one of the most despised and feared agencies from the standpoint of property rights advocates.

According to public records, personnel exiting the district due to layoffs in Palm Bay include Public Works Foreman Douglas Armstrong, Business Resource Specialist Gloria Armstrong, Senior Trades Worker Al Bechtold, Senior Regulatory Specialist Jennifer Cope, Environmental Scientist Gregory Dambek, Engineer Jose Raphael Diaz, Senior Regulatory Scientists Karen Garrett-Krauss, Hydrologist Raeanne McKinley, Senior Professional Engineer Mohammed Moayer, Business Resource Specialist Katherine Recore, Senior Regulatory Scientist Mark Volcanal, Regulatory Support Specialist Janet White and Senior Trades Worker Cory Wood.

If cutting the 130 positions amounts to a savings of $12 million as stated by the district, then the average cost – salary plus benefits – of the 130 people who retired or were laid off is $92,307 per year.